Red Bulls midfielder Daniel Royer’s reaction after the 3-0 loss to Philadelphia says it all. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Bradley Carnell has qualifications to be a head coach.
After making more than 300 appearances in the Bundesliga and playing 40 times for the South Africa national team, he was an assistant coach with the Orlando Pirates and was an assistant with the Red Bulls since 2017 before he was elevated to interim head coach Friday.
The big question is whether Carnell has the means to fix a broken club – quickly. That is his charge as the Red Bulls scour the world to find a permanent replacement for Chris Armas, who was fired along with CJ Brown.
It is unfair to expect one man to fix all the problems the Red Bulls (3-5-2) have incurred over the past year or so, especially after what transpired during the Sunday Night Massacre at Red Bull Arena, a 3-0 thumping by the Philadelphia Union.
Now, the Union is a good side, a very good one. But a struggling team like the Red Bulls, which needs a compass to find the opposing net (the Red Bulls have scored only seven times in 10 games), cannot afford such results.
As I stated in another column, there is plenty of blame to go around.
This crisis is due to mismanagement, bad decisions and Salzburg’s – the team’s owners’ headquarters – desire to keep costs down by bringing in mediocre and middle-of-the-road talent, for the most part. So, for several years the team has been relying on young, energetic players coming through the Red Bull Academy and Red Bulls II. Some have worked out famously, such as U.S. internationals Tyler Adams, who is with Red Bull Leipzig, and Aaron Long, who has not looked like the center back who is a regular on the national team.
There are, however, alarming signs that the in-house well is in the process of or has run dry. No new talent has burst upon the sign this year and Red Bulls II is enduring its worst season of its six-year existence with a 3-7-0 record in the USL Championship. Yes, good players can come from bad teams, but can a 21- or 22-year-old give a foundering MLS squad a big boost?
The biggest failure was the find a viable replacement for the departed Bradley Wright-Phillips, the team’s all-time leading goal-scorer who was jettisoned after an unproductive and injury-plagued 2019 season. Incredibly, a Red Bulls forward hasn’t scored in 10 games this season. Think of that! No goals from a forward!
By the way, I refuse to call any of the team’s forwards strikers because, well, they don’t strike at all.
Not securing a proven forward was a serious and fire-able offense. You have to wonder why Denis Hamlett is still sporting director. Perhaps head of sport Kevin Thelwell didn’t want to get rid of the previous administration in one fell swoop during the season, essentially leaving the Red Bulls with a scorched earth.
Perhaps the addition of forward Samuel Tetteh and midfielder Dru Yearwood will have solve of the attacking problems. Certainly, they can’t do any worse, can they?
After changing coaches and managers, many teams get a bump in their next game.
The Red Bulls? They had a bump, all right, a bump in the road and got a couple of flat tires against Philly.
Some, perhaps much of this has led to dwindling crowds at Red Bull Arena, forcing club officials to use tarps to cover empty parts of the stadium, to many observers the best-looking venues in the league.
Why weren’t fans attending games, even when the team was winning and securing Supporters’ Shields (three in six years)? That’s a story that has been beaten into the ground much like a dead horse the past several years. So much to unpack here. That is worth another column or two in the future.
Anyway, it was fortunate Sunday’s match was a closed-door affair or the team would have been booed off the pitch.
Speaking of which, the Red Bulls’ two worst seasons in their 25-year history have ended with nines, as in 1999 and 2009. Many soccer observers and perhaps some Red Bulls supporters were bracing for a similar season in 2019, but the team never reached its depths of those two previous campaigns. The 13-13-8 finish was bad enough for many. In fact, it was the poorest record during the team’s record 10-year run of playoff participation (2010-19).
This year? Thanks to the MLS’ generous playoff system and an even more forgiving Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls still can reach the postseason. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league has expanded the playoffs to 18 teams, nine in each conference.
As of Monday, Sept. 7, the Red Bulls are in ninth place, two games under .500, and still very much alive to reach the postseason. In some leagues around the world, that would be closer to the relegation zone. Here, in the United States, land of the playoffs and second and third chances, there still is an opportunity to actually win the league title.
I have no words.
With 13 games remaining in the season, there’s still plenty of time for the Red Bulls to turn things around and move up the conference standing and prove that they are better than just a run-of-the mill team.
That is Carnell’s challenge. Perhaps he can turn into a miracle worker, shore up the midfield and backline, coax a few goals out of the forwards and get wins at home and find a way to coax a few goals. Then perhaps he gets an opportunity to be the permanent head coach. If he doesn’t, no blame on him. The results could demonstrate how far the rot has gone.
In some respects during this crazy, unprecedented year, in which many of us have lost track of what day it is, it could be getting late early, that great philosopher Yogi Berra once said.
Buckle up Red Bulls fans, life just might get even bumpier down the road.