Six reasons why the Red Bulls are MLS' most intriguing story
My feature story on Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls is in this week's Sports Illustrated magazine as part of our MLS season-opening package. But there was a lot of good stuff that I didn't use from my interviews over a two-week period with all of the top figures from the club. That's the challenge with magazine stories: You only end up using your very best nuggets, and a lot falls by the wayside.
I didn't want all that to go to waste, however, so here's my column with six more reasons why New York (which meets San Jose on Sunday, ESPN2, 10 pm ET) is the most intriguing team in MLS at the start of the 2013 season:
Henry has won more important trophies in his career than anyone in the history of MLS, and it's not even close. But he has yet to win an MLS Cup, and you can see how much it rankles him. Truth be told, Henry is sort of a prickly guy in interviews—by equal measure candid, interesting and a bit confrontational—and it's a reflection of how he plays on the field, too.
"I still feel fresh, still have that little fire in me, that desire," Henry said at one point. "Sometimes I'm a bit over-committed, but when I see a game I'd rather see someone over-committed rather than not caring or not trying too hard. It's always like that with me. When I'm upset, you see it. When I'm happy, you see it."
As his teammate Dax McCarty put it when describing Henry, "His competitiveness, his drive, his desire to win, I've never seen anything like it. Sometimes it gets to the point where you're like, 'Whoa, maybe he needs to take it down a notch.' But this is my third year with the team, and it won't surprise me anymore. If you make a bad pass and he lays into you a little bit, it's like he expects perfection. Where he comes from, if that doesn't happen he wants to make sure you know, 'Hey, let's make it better.'"
"That's his way to try and motivate us. I don't think everything he does is seen as productive," McCarty continued. "But with all the guys on the team, we know he wants what's best for the team. So if he's frustrated, we know we need to change little things to make sure not only he's happier but the team is playing better. Thierry will be the first guy to tell you, if he makes a bad pass he doesn't mind if you lay into him a little bit. It's a little intimidating at first, but he has a tremendous amount of respect for guys who are willing to say, 'Listen, you need to pick it up.' He expects that from us, but he needs to know we expect that from him. That's why I think he's done so well in his career. He's had players at Arsenal and Barcelona who said if he makes a mistake, make it better the next time."
Henry wasn't all that effective in New York's season-opening 3-3 tie at Portland last week. Will things be different in San Jose on Sunday? And might we see Henry stationed farther upfield than he was last week? "Thierry still has something in the tank, and I'm sure he can deliver some good goals," said Gérard Houllier, Red Bull's global soccer boss, whose relationship with Henry goes back to coaching his France team to the UEFA Under-18 title in 1996. "All he needs is to be fed. I don't like when he drops deep in parts of the game, because when you do that you're not in front of the goal."
It's hard not to like Mike Petke, the 37-year-old former Red Bulls defender who was surprisingly given the head coaching gig in January. Not only does Petke, a Long Island native, love the club, but he's self-deprecating to boot. Petke tells the story of the day in November when Houllier, having just dismissed former coach Hans Backe, held a meeting in front of the remaining coaches and players and turned to Petke. "You'll be in charge," Houllier said to Petke, giving him the interim job at the time. "I was looking over my shoulder to see if Sir Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola was standing behind me," Petke jokes.
"Can you handle that?" Houllier asked. Petke said absolutely. It was the first time the two men had ever spoken to each other.
Petke admits he's under "a s---load of pressure" as the coach of one of the league's flagship teams. "But most of the pressure I put on myself," he said. "I could care less if I'm fired by the end of the year. What I do care about is when I do leave this organization, the one I love and that I've been a part of, I left it in a better place than it was. That drives me every day."
Petke first joined the club, then known as the MetroStars, in the third year of MLS, and he feels a close connection to the team's long-suffering fans, who have never seen the franchise win a competitive trophy.
"To look up in the stands last year and see so many faces that I'd seen in 1998, it blows my mind," Petke said. "It takes a strong-willed person to stick around a franchise that has continuously let down the fanbase and organization and ourselves. I say the same thing to them all the time: When we are successful, they are going to have just as much to benefit as we are. I truly mean that. Because at the heart of it, I am one of them."
Houllier deservedly gets much of the credit for the success of France's youth development at Clairefontaine in the '90s, which helped lead Les Bleus to winning the World Cup in 1998. Part of his task with the Red Bulls is to make sure the team produces young American players who can win for New York—and, presumably, on the world stage.
"The league [MLS] is very physical," says Houllier, who also managed Aston Villa, Lyon and Liverpool, among other clubs. "Football in America is at a turning point. This is probably why MLS is keen to develop connections with some of the FAs in Europe. They're physical and well-organized. What they need is to be more technical, have more creativity in the game in terms of beating players and so on. It's a crucial moment. Some European teams were like the U.S. maybe 20 or 30 years ago, but they decided to put the emphasis on developing young players and bringing more skills and creativity ... But you have to do that at a young age, and it's under the age of 12."
Houllier is based in Paris, but he also hired two executives who are on the ground in New York: Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh, the Scottish former UEFA technical director, and general manager Jérôme de Bontin, a Frenchman who has lived in the U.S. for many years. "The player development side, we'll get into that more, which includes the academy," said Roxburgh, who has spent most of his time getting things organized on the first team so far.
The Australian international, a Red Bulls designated player, doesn't understand why some national team coaches don't want their players being in MLS. The group includes Colombia's José Pekerman and, based on recent reports, England's Roy Hodgson with Frank Lampard. "I find that difficult," says Cahill, "because [Lampard] is a professional who plays at the highest level all the time. I think it would actually be a good move for his body. If anything, you should work harder to keep your body in better condition so when you show up you've got that international stimulation. When I go on international duty, I love it. And I've got a great relationship with my [national-team] manager, Holger [Osieck], who understands this is the best thing for me."
Focusing mainly on the business side is De Bontin, a French finance expert who attended Amherst (where he became good friends with Prince Albert of Monaco) and has served as both the president of AS Monaco and (during his years in Chicago) as a U.S. Soccer board member. It's De Bontin's job to start filling Red Bull Arena, the club's sparkling $200 million stadium in Harrison, N.J.
De Bontin tells the story of recently meeting an aide to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The aide, a soccer fan, said that he and his friends flew to London a couple times a year to watch English Premier League games. But the man had never once visited Red Bull Arena. "We need to reach out to all those who should come here who've never come," De Bontin says. "I run into many corporate leaders who played in college and always liked the sport, and yet they haven't connected with the Red Bulls or MLS."
With extensive experience in Europe and in the U.S., De Bontin has the chance to be an important figure bridging the two worlds for the Red Bulls. He certainly has his share of opinions on a number of topics. For one, the debate over whether European expertise is a good thing or a bad thing at MLS clubs.
"If you look at just soccer, keeping MLS aside, it's clear that you'll find greater expertise in Europe than you will find here," he says. "But MLS is really complicated, as I've learned over the years. It's structured like no other league. It has more rules and regulations. The salary cap makes it extremely difficult to build a team over time like in Europe. The top European coaches who've come and gone have had a very tough time adjusting to that ... So I think maybe bringing the experts from Europe on a consulting basis works better than bringing a top European coach who'll try for six months or a year, get tired and go home. Bringing such a prestigious expert as Andy Roxburgh as sporting director is to have his experience to help a coaching staff that is almost exclusively American [headed by Petke and assistant Robin Fraser].
De Bontin also has an intriguing take on MLS commissioner Don Garber's stated goal of making MLS one of the world's top soccer leagues by 2022. "He's not a former soccer player, so his perspective is not the one of a soccer person," De Bontin says. "It is, rightly so, the one of a businessman. So his point of comparison is more the NFL than the EPL. He's more concerned with the value of a franchise than with the quality of play. He doesn't necessarily see the difference between the standard game here and the standard game in a secondary league like Switzerland or Austria."
"I admire him for everything that he's doing right," the former Monaco president continued, "but I do believe the league needs people like me to pressure all the other owners to recognize that building a nice stadium is not enough. The product on the pitch has to match the standard of the stadiums we have built."
How many other MLS GMs would say what De Bontin just said? Not many.
In Houllier's first interview with a U.S. media outlet since taking over Red Bull's global soccer operations, he strongly suggests that New York will sign a third Designated Player this summer, but he won't be like the one he's replacing, Rafa Márquez. "I don't think we'll sign [a DP] before July," Houllier says. "We'll wait and see how it goes. If you take a DP, he has to bring something to the team. He must not cost you goals or qualifications, and he must also be an example in terms of attitude. So I prefer to wait and have the right person."