Categorized | Commentary

Midseason review: A new low

Posted on 10 July 2009 by Nathaniel E. Baker

Fans of the New York/New Jersey Major League Soccer franchise have certainly had their share of disappointments over the past 14 seasons. A procession of 11 coaches, six general managers and three ownership groups have passed through the vacuous confines of Giants Stadium, many arriving with great fanfare before succumbing to various degrees of failure. The franchise has been described as “cursed” or “snakebit,” but those words do no justice to the team’s shortcomings over the course of its decade-and-a-half history. Instead, the franchise has been nothing short of one giant case study in incompetence, be it by ownership, management, coaches, or a combination thereof.

It's been a rough season for Osorio (left) and Angel

Today, in the summer of 2009, the team has reached a new low–even by its own sad standards. After a surprise appearance in the 2008 MLS Cup game, it is on track for one of the worst seasons in the history of the league. Its record (two wins, 13 losses, four draws) and goal difference (15 for, 30 against) should speak for themselves, but sadly do the trainwreck no justice. The organization lacks direction on virtually every level: Its deadbeat Austrian owners have either lost interest or are biding their time or both, its general manager is utterly clueless and has given up even trying to pretend otherwise, and its attempts at marketing and “community outreach” have been ineffectual or, worse yet, embarrassments.

Then there’s the head coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, about whom an entire volume could be written. The Colombian, who was poached from the Chicago Fire ahead of the 2008 season, is not without charisma (the same of which can not be said of his curmudgeonly predecessor) and to his credit seems to genuinely care about the mess he has created. But Osorio’s blunders run so deep and are so bewildering that he can at this point be described as wholly incompetent at best and a downright fraud at worst. This year, it took Osorio about a dozen regular season games to decide on a starting lineup and formation–with a squad that went to MLS Cup the season prior. Nor does there appear to be any method to his madness. Players are routinely lined up out of position, often on the opposite side of the field from their dominant foot. Others, after showing promise in one role, are forced into another, relegated to the end of the bench or kept out of lineups altogether. Some of the team’s most promising young talent is being wasted in this manner.

Osorio’s style, if he has one, is to bunker. He is so enamored with defensive football that he forsakes it for everything else, no matter the score or situation. The team shows little incentive going forward, its few feeble attempts limited to long balls. Only rarely do its few attacking players attempt runs or show for the ball. Mostly the ball is passed around the back before it is turned over to the opposition.

No surprise then that it took five games for the team to even score a goal by itself (a Week Two tally against New England was credited as an own-goal to Jay Heaps). Of the 14 it has scored to date, half have been unassisted, which indicates they were in all likelihood the result of a defensive error or set piece as opposed to the team’s own efforts.

Osorio’s love of defense transcends to his personnel decisions, though here some of the blame must also be placed on the team’s general manager Jeff Agoos. Over the past year the team has stockpiled defensive players, nearly all of them from Latin America, but Osorio still insists on converting midfielders and wingers into defensive roles. Yet the team’s defenders still lack some of the very basic fundamentals and are often caught ball-watching. Worse, the defense cannot hold leads and routinely concedes goals in the waning minutes of halves.

Osorio also appears to have a preference for thuggish players. Costa Rican right back Carlos Johnson earned red cards in his first two games with the team. Argentine defensive mid Juan Pietravallo, since waived, was known by fans as Pietra-foul-o for his propensity for picking up cheap cards, often shortly after entering games as a (defensive, natch) substitute.

Both Johnson and Pietravallo were signed by Agoos and Osorio. But the team’s personnel blunders these past 18 months go much further. The following bullet points are merely a few lowlights. Any Red Bulls fan can add to the list:

  • Its best player last season and the key ingredient (along with plenty of luck) in its postseason run, left winger Dave van den Bergh, was cast off to Dallas for effectively nothing. Osorio and Agoos said the Dutchman orchestrated the trade, but when a local Web site caught up to van den Bergh, he gave a different version of events.
  • To replace van den Bergh, the team traded for Khano Smith, who is (no exaggeration) one of the worst players in MLS history. Smith was one of Osorio’s few regular starters early in the season despite no indication whatsoever that he was up to the task. Finally he was benched. But he remains with the team and his contract is due to become guaranteed July 15.
  • For additional depth on the left flank, the team drafted Jeremy Hall from the University of Maryland. This was not a bad choice by any means; not only was Hall an integral part of an NCAA championship side, but he has all the intangibles to make it as a professional in MLS. Yet for reasons that remain obscure, Hall was not given a chance to win the left midfielder job, where his skills were desperately needed. Instead he was converted to right back, where he has performed admirably given the circumstances. But the Red Bulls were about to sign Carlos Johnson to play right back anyway.
  • Early in the 2008 season, the Red Bulls refused to give draft pick Eric Brunner a senior roster spot, waiving the young Ohioan in favor of Andrew Boyens. Brunner since signed with the MLS Champion Columbus Crew, where he is now starting. Boyens has been a(nother) defensive liability.
  • Midway through the 2008 campaign, Osorio signed three additional defensive players (Pietravallo, Gabriel Cichero, Diego Jimenez) from Latin America. None impressed or even seemed capable of starting on a regular basis. All are out of the league.
  • At the start of the 2009 season, Osorio brought in two more defensive players (in addition to Johnson). Alfredo Pacheco and Albert Celades, to their (and Osorio’s) credit have not been horrible. But the roster was already overflowing with players with their skillset (many acquired by Osorio himself). The team clearly had other priorities. It still does.
  • Jorge Rojas, whom Osorio brought on in 2008 to be his playmaker, has looked completely lost on the pitch and uninterested in contributing anything beyond ballhogging, which is not meant to insinuate Rojas is a great dribbler. Or even a good one.
  • An undrafted rookie goalkeeper, Alec Dufty, was signed as an emergency backup to Danny Cepero. When Cepero had to leave the fourth game of the season with a concussion, Dufty got the call. He played well, but was waived the following week to make space for Jon Conway, who was serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy (but had been protected in the expansion draft, despite having a hefty salary no team in its right mind would have picked up, least of all one that had already signed Kasey Keller. Curiously enough, the other player suspended with Conway, Jeff Parke, was not protected despite having far more marketable skills. Parke was promptly picked up by Seattle, but ended up signing with the Vancouver Whitecaps).
  • Conway was waived last month in favor of Bouna Condoul, whose salary demands are significantly smaller (though not as small as Dufty’s). But Condoul has been inconsistent in his MLS career to date. More importantly, the Red Bulls have far greater needs.

On the pitch the team personifies its wayward coaching and management. Its style might best be described as a perverted satire of catenaccio (the old Italian style of defensive soccer that is not even practiced in Italy anymore), but performed with unskilled youth players. Even if it were to work in attaining results, this system is unlikely to attract much of a following, especially in New York where the Red Bulls have to compete with countless other forms of entertainment, sporting and otherwise.

But the system clearly does not work, which begs the question: Why do Osorio and Agoos still have a jobs? It is hard to imagine any ownership group, in any professional sports organization (least of all in the world’s biggest media market) condoning such levels of incompetence. Yet despite widespread fan outrage, Red Bull has maintained a stony silence not only on Agoos and Osorio, but on virtually all matters affecting the team.

Does the Austrian corporation think Osorio and Agoos deserve to keep their jobs because the team made it to MLS Cup last year? The Red Bulls’ playoff run (a bit of a misnomer seeing as it entailed merely two road wins, the second of which was little more than pure luck) was not only a fluke, but one accomplished with players that were brought in by Bruce Arena, the team’s previous coach and GM. Not that Red Bull brass would care about these details even if they were aware of them. More likely, the team’s ownership is content to play out the string before finally, at long last, moving into its own stadium at the start of the 2010 season. Give Osorio and Agoos enough rope to hang themselves, a job they are performing with distinction, but do not sign off on any more of their acquisitions. When the season ends, clean house and bring in new management and coaches.

This assumes Red Bull still cares about the team. The Austrians are said to be frustrated with MLS’ institutional parity that prevents individual teams from doing just about anything without league approval. Understandable, but also the type of thing they should have been aware of, had they done all their homework. There have been rumors, none substantiated, that the energy drink company was looking to sell the team. Don’t be surprised to hear more of them.

To be sure, New York’s problems are the league’s problems. It is hard to see how MLS will ever escape its third-rate status without a successful franchise in its biggest market. Of course, the single ownership policy neutralizes whatever advantages might otherwise be afforded by the region’s size and scale. The “Beckham Rule,” which permits teams to exempt one player’s salary from the salary cap, has not had the desired effect (and not only because of all the issues involving its namesake). The Red Bulls even traded for a second designated player spot, but after wasting it on Claudio Reyna for a season and a half, have let it go unused. No marquee players in their prime are willing to come to MLS and only very few others (Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Kasey Keller come to mind) are worth the cost.

On some level then, the New York franchise is a symbol of MLS itself. Built on a previous generation’s love affair with the sport, but hoping to capitalize on burgeoning interest particularly among the communities of newest Americans, it began with great promise and fanfare. Handcuffed by its own policies, mismanaged through several quick fixes and restarts, it does not really know what to do with itself. It has some shiny new infrastructure waiting to be put to use, but if it’s going to make any progress toward fulfilling its great promise it has to get out of its own way first.

1 Comments For This Post

  1. ASN_Editor Says:

    It looks like the Red Bulls will indeed stand pat with Osorio and Agoos for the rest of the season, according to this Soccer by Ives report:

1 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. American Soccer News » Lead Story » He’s ba-ack! Says:

    […] were facing the New York Red Bulls? A year removed from an unlikely trip to the MLS Cup Final, the Red Bulls are in the midst of perhaps its worst season in franchise history. The Red Bulls are currently in last place in MLS with a record of 2-13-4 and only 10 points. The […]

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