“Oh, he talks to himself, aye?”
Andy Roxburgh is talking about Bruce Arena. He’s not been at New York Red Bulls long, but it appears the new Sporting Director may have already been asked one too many times about the management model at the Los Angeles Galaxy, and can’t resist a wry little dig at the head coach and general manager of the current MLS champions.
Roxburgh barely pauses on the aside, though, launching straight into a detailed breakdown of the new Red Bulls management structure: “What happens in this case, is this model is based on the French FA. The French FA when Gerard [Houllier, Red Bulls global director of soccer] was there, was the technical director and the CEO, and one didn’t answer to the other. They were in partnership, they linked occasionally, when appropriate. But each one of them was responsible for his own area, and the person who was above them is only one person, who’s the president. Now, it’s the same model here.”
The Scotsman is animated company, perhaps never more so than when discussing the minutiae of planning and coordinating a team. Perhaps it’s his two decades as the technical director of UEFA talking — and at times it makes for a slightly uncanny sensation conversationally. There are moments when Roxburgh slips into a tempo of talking where he’ll use vague phrases such as suggesting that the “Red” in “Red Bulls” might stand for “passion” — phrases that will then segue into more detailed staccato bullet points. At those moments it’s a little like hearing a PowerPoint presentation come to life. And despite Roxburgh’s visible track-suited presence in his early days at the Red Bulls, it does at times create the sense of a bureaucrat as much as a soccer man.
That’s unfair to Roxburgh, though. When he’s asked about his time at UEFA, and what saw him make the turn to a new continent at this stage of his working life (he’ll be 70 this year and could easily have seen out his career within UEFA), Roxburgh actually glosses over his working with the more glamorous European federations such as Spain, Germany, and France to talk about the “adventure” (a word he uses repeatedly) of developing new territories. "The big thing for us (UEFA) was developing Eastern Europe and developing smaller countries. There was a big adventure involved in doing all of that. And with FIFA, I was all over the planet. I was in Japan every two years since 1996, I was endlessly in Malaysia trying to create a coaching license there. So that kind of, if you like, spirit of adventure, new territory, that was also fascinating here [MLS]."
The adventurer, though, has landed in a very specific part of MLS — a franchise where “building and building and building” has historically come a poor second to “rip it up and start again.” Roxburgh’s plans may be detail-oriented, but the Red Bulls have been a byword for making plans and God laughing. Season after season, no New York team has won an MLS Cup — a fact that at first became a curiosity in MLS circles, then a recurring talking point, then a joke, then a strange kind of stigma regarding what the Red Bulls apparently represented — a somehow un-American attempt to buy the championship through a high turnover of superannuated foreign mercenaries. Whether it was actually true mattered less than the popular conception.
And it got more pronounced each year, as an ever less subtle urgency kicked in. Successive management regimes would make all the right noises about the MLS orthodoxy of a stable team, built around young Americans, being the key to success. But in the meantime, the pattern of roster turnover has been one that suggests, “Let’s just win this year to get the monkey off our back … and we can be prudent and long term next year.” The result was repeated stacking and unpacking of rosters that were pushed hard against the salary cap; repeated shipping out of promising American youngsters to do their best work elsewhere; and repeated failure in the playoffs.
Roxburgh inherited such a team, when he officially arrived, on the day previous head coach Hans Backe left — the day after the 2012 playoff loss to D.C. United. Backe hadn’t done badly in some ways. He joined the club after a disastrous 2009 campaign and took them to three successive playoff spots, including winning the Eastern Conference in his first year, and getting a record points haul last season. But he never got past the conference semifinals. Meanwhile, his sporting director, Erik Soler, had a bumpy entry into the conventions of the MLS circuit, as the Red Bulls seemed to get the rough end of several trades — most notably the sequence between them, Toronto, and D.C. that saw Dwayne De Rosario pass briefly through the New York team. De Rosario was back at Red Bull Arena a couple of weeks ago for MLS media day. What did he make of Backe? A shrug: “He had all the tools. He just didn’t know how to use the tools.”
Before last season started, Backe told me briskly that “Now it’s time to win something,” as though winning a championship were something akin to finally getting around to clearing leaves from the guttering. The season started fairly promisingly. Soler seemed to have finally gotten the hang of how to make deals, engaging well in the more arcane practices such as trading discovery rights, and bringing some convincing looking signings to the team. Kenny Cooper arrived from Portland and scored 18 goals. Young players like Connor Lade and Ryan Meara came to the team and had breakout years, and Dax McCarty, the apparently underwhelming option received from D.C. in the De Rosario trade, had a career year as a defensive midfielder. The team went on an unbeaten home run till the early fall, and things were looking good for postseason progress in the last year of Backe’s contract.
But the elevation of Gerard Houllier to global director of Red Bull soccer seemed to change all that. New York Red Bulls general manager Chris Heck was the first immediate casualty. Soler briefly assumed his duties but then was swiftly replaced by Jerome de Bontin with just a few weeks left to go in the regular season. Backe, now clearly a lame duck manager, took his side into the playoffs, but the sight on TV of D.C. United coach Ben Olsen champing at the bit to play a road game in snow, while the home coach Backe insisted that this was “not soccer,” left an unfortunate image of the head coach as having no appetite left for the challenge. The next day, his team crashed out, and a day later, he was gone.
In truth, though, he was gone long before. Soler’s departure had set the clock ticking publicly. It’s doubtful even an MLS Cup would have saved Backe at that point. Roxburgh’s arrival had been in the works for months, even if the Scot had been unsure about making the move. “Last summer when they started talking to me about coming here, it was only talk," he says. "I flew up last August and had a look, but it was no more than that. I started to mull it over, and it gradually materialized. So then before I knew it, then I was here.”
Roxburgh was “here” for the start of a cull. The latest side to be pushed right against the salary cap for Backe’s final tilt at the MLS Cup now had to be dismantled, and 16 players left during the offseason. Astonishingly, when the dust had cleared, the team’s longest-serving players remaining were Roy Miller (three years) and Thierry Henry (two and a half years). When I mentioned this fact to the latter a few days ago, he exhaled hard and said, “It’s kind of weird. I looked at Roy the other day and said, [mimes looking around an empty room] ‘Only us.' Both of us are like the granddads of the team. I should be like a rookie. But change happens.”
Roxburgh also had to quickly learn the realities of roster-building in MLS. When I ask him about the first time he sat down and looked at the roster while having to make salary-cap calculations, he rolls his eyes:
“I’ve only got two words for you: ‘Kenny. Cooper.’ I’m still in denial. I fought for nearly a month to keep Kenny Cooper. I said, ‘Over my dead body!’ So I actually shouldn’t be standing here. Great boy, goalscorer, and they keep telling me, ‘You can’t keep him. You just can’t have him. You need to sell him because somebody wants him; his price is too high; he puts us on the right side, in terms of salary cap.' I could have kept him, but it would have brought the rest of it into real difficulties. But it was not a football decision.”
I found myself wondering who this prescriptive "they" are. When I spoke to then-interim coach Mike Petke at the combine, he was accompanied by team technical director Ricardo Campos, and Petke was making similar comments about “being shown the numbers by this guy (indicating Campos), and wishing I hadn’t seen them." Campos was a survivor of the Backe era, having served as right-hand man to Soler, and helped ease his boss into the nuances of MLS — picking up more influence himself along the way. When Roxburgh arrived, he was sufficiently impressed by Campos, and, of course, by Petke, to retain them, and ultimately place his faith in the latter as head coach. Roxburgh has placed a lot of trust in the understanding Petke and Campos have about the league, and while he has brought in key performance staff on the fitness side, other young staff, such as performance analyst David Lee, have been maintained to grow with the project. There have also been other key shifts in staffing priorities:
“The first thing I did was make the doctors the king of the castle. Riley Williams, our top doctor, is no. 1 — he wasn’t that. Doctors didn’t even travel with us. I heard that, and I was like, ‘What?’ Literally, 'What?!' Every meal has been controlled by our fitness coach, Davide, who came from Barcelona, with a nutritionist. Everything has been organized in terms of what they eat. It’s all small things that all make you professional.”
There have been player arrivals, too. Juninho, of course, but perhaps most notably as a statement of intent, the capture of Espindola and Olave from Real Salt Lake. Thierry Henry has been a particularly public admirer of the Salt Lake way, raising inevitable message-board speculation that he's had an influence on bringing the pair to the club, or even having influence on the choice of new head coach. Not that Henry has any patience with those suggestions. When asked at MLS media day if he’d been consulted by management on who should be the new coach, Henry deadpanned, “Yes. They said, ‘Mike is the boss.’”
While the speculation around Henry is inevitable, given his profile, and while his presence, and to a lesser extent, that of Tim Cahill, poses unique challenges for a first-time MLS coach like Petke, the personnel changes at the less high-profile end of the roster do give New York fans some cause for guarded optimism. When I speak to McCarty about how Roxburgh’s vision can be bedded in with a side that's still learning one another’s names, and where Miller and Henry are now the longest-standing members, he says, "Sometimes organizations do so much to try to win and bring a championship, they’re always trying constantly to bring in the right players. But I think, in MLS, what’s been successful has been the teams that have stuck with certain guys for a long term. Especially Salt Lake — they had the same team for three years, and it brought them a lot of success. The main thing that Andy has already proved in his time here, is that he wants to build that foundation. He’s re-signed Ryan Meara, Connor Lade, Brandon Barklage, and myself. All young, hard-working, American guys that I think sometimes get overlooked in this league. But at the end of the day, you need players like that to win."
We’re speaking at this year’s Red Bulls media day, held in a lofty studio space in Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers. Somewhere on the other side of the room, Mike Petke is sitting behind a dais affably holding court with a media scrum. Henry is already stooping for photographs for the season ticket holders party that immediately follows the event, having patiently fielded questions in French, Spanish, and English for much of the afternoon. The Salt Lake pair of Espindola and Olave ease themselves out of the directors chairs they’ve been placed in for the afternoon, and quietly enter the gathering throng of New York fans — a long way from Utah. Ricardo Campos moves through the crowd unnoticed. Roxburgh watches it all, waiting for Sunday’s first game and the first results of the latest best-laid plans.
New York starts its season on the road against the Portland Timbers Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for The Guardian. He also writes for Howler.