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Hans, Not Henry, May Be the Key to Red Bulls' Resurgence

Sep 28, 2010 – 4:01 PM
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Brian Straus

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red bulls hans backe

The New York Red Bulls, who traveled across the country without their best player and easily defeated Major League Soccer's top team last Friday, are a championship contender thanks to the summer arrival of designated players Thierry Henry (who missed the 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy) and Rafa Márquez.

But they are winners thanks to Hans Backe.

For years, we all wondered what it would take to turn the Red Bulls into a real soccer team. The Austrian energy drink company took over in 2006 and got to work on building the new stadium, but things didn't improve on the field. The surprising run to the 2008 MLS Cup Final was erased by last year's five-win debacle, and in January Red Bull named Backe as the franchise's 12th coach in 15 seasons.

Hans Backe? I had to Google him, too.

Backe is Euro, through and through. He's Swedish, in his late 50s and had a coaching career that could best be described as journeyman-esque. He bounced around the Scandinavian leagues, worked in Austria and Greece, and had his most successful stint at FC Copenhagen, which he guided to the Danish championship in 2001, 2003 and 2004. He worked with Sven-Göran Eriksson at Manchester City and with the Mexican national team.

None of it seemed that impressive, and when Red Bull handed Backe the keys to its soccer jalopy, it seemed like another ham-fisted decision by a corporation uninterested in the nuances of the American game. European coaches unfamiliar with MLS and the American system had been falling on their faces since the likes of Bobby Houghton and Frank Stapleton were inaugural season flops in 1996. From Ruud Gullit to Bora Milutinovic and Carlos Queiroz, Euros and MLS never quite mixed.

FanHouse wasn't the only one perplexed. Red Bulls veteran Mike Petke said this when I asked him about Backe early this season:

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"In the back of my mind I was a little confused about a foreign general manager (Erik Solér is Norwegian) and a foreign coach as well. Usually you have to have one or the other, so the other one's telling you about MLS."

Usually. But Solér and Backe have broken the mold. Veteran technical staffers like Richie Williams, Jeff Agoos and Des McAleenan were kept aboard to add MLS insight, and without overhauling the entire roster, Backe set out to teach the Red Bulls winning soccer.

Estonian Joel Lindpere was a key addition in midfield, and central defender Tim Ream has been mentioned as a rookie of the year candidate. But most of the Red Bulls who won five of their first six games this season, equaling the win total from 2009, were holdovers. By the time Henry and Márquez arrived, the team already had developed some competitive swagger. The former Barcelona pair, plus midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy (acquired in a trade from Colorado), would fit in seamlessly thanks to Backe's tactical acumen.

The result was evident in Los Angeles. The league's top player, Landon Donovan, and its leading scorer, Edson Buddle, were non-factors. Stifled and unable to establish any coherent possession or threat, the Galaxy and its injury-riddled back line were left to absorb pressure. L.A. coach Bruce Arena conceded afterward that "their midfield dominated us" and that New York's central defenders "cut off every cross we sent in."

The Galaxy, which entered the game as the highest scoring team in MLS, took five shots in 90 minutes.

That is a triumph of organization. The Red Bulls can beat you with Henry or Juan Pablo Ángel, but they can also beat you as a team that has learned to play coherent, intelligent and mistake-free soccer.

"They just simplified things. Soccer is soccer," Petke said of the new GM and coach. "It's not like they came in with an ego. We need to learn soccer and they need to learn about the league, and they've been willing to learn and they've done a good job."

The Red Bulls are 13-8-5 heading into Saturday's home game against the Kansas City Wizards. The club hasn't won that many games in a regular season since 2001. Sure, FC Dallas is having a wonderfully surprising season, but if Backe's accomplishment -- winning in Northern Jersey -- doesn't merit coach of the year honors, the award has lost its meaning.

Back when the Red Bulls were enjoying their spectacular start, FanHouse asked Backe to share some thoughts on his approach.

"In some countries you can find a lot of pace. In other countries a lot of possession, and everyone said it's a lot of pace in MLS. But it's not that much pace in MLS," he said. "It's some technical football, some technical things, a lto fo possession. So we said we would start to organize the team in the defending game. Very, very solid, go thorugh all the instructions for each player so every player knows when he goes out his role how to defend."

Said Petke:

"He has a system, and the key thing is repetition. From the first moment, the first day he got here, when we met for preseason we worked on the same thing. Team defense, the same way.

"That's something he's made a priority, 11 guys playing defense and how he wants us to do that. So it's not like he came in like coaches we've had in the past and said 'This is the type of team we're going to be', then you go out and do something completely different at practice every day. No. We work on it every day, and to me, that's the way you get results."

New York has yielded 27 goals, the lowest number in the Eastern Conference.

"We only got rid of a handful of players, so I think it's just a system that's been put in place by the new coach," Petke said.

It's quite possible that Backe's lower profile has been a blessing in disguise. The likes of Gullit and Queiroz come to MLS with a sense of superiority and a lack of patience with a system a bit different from the norm. Backe knew there was a learning curve and sought advice from the staff that stayed in place.

"I would say without them we would have been lost," he told FanHouse.

And without Backe, the Red Bulls might be lost. Another disastrous season surely would have given Henry and Márquez pause before signing their contracts. Now, thanks to the organization and foundation established by the Swede, the Red Bulls are an MLS Cup contender. A European coach can win in MLS. Backe has proven the naysayers, including us, very wrong.
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