The success of the Red Bulls has not been lost on those around the league, who see an excellent model of hiring personnel that understand tThe success of the Red Bulls has not been lost on those around the league, who see an excellent model of hiring personnel that understand the game making soccer decisions for their franchise.
With the start of the playoffs against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Red Bulls are in the midst of an audacious transformation, having increased their victory total by 10 games over 2009. The architect of that turnaround — Erik Soler, the team’s Norwegian sporting director and general manager — likes to stay close to the action, taking a seat on the team’s bench during games. When he took control of the team, Soler, a former professional player (he played 39 times for Norway), club owner (IK Start) and agent, was confronted with a litany of issues, foremost among them the perception throughout M.L.S. that team management by foreigners was a disaster waiting to happen.
“When I got here, they looked like any club that had been through a terrible season; they had a losing hat on their head and were getting accustomed to losing,” Soler, 50, said during a recent interview at Red Bull Arena. “Not only on the sporting side. It was the same virus. How do you sell a terrible team?”
Hired by Dietmar Beiersdorfer, who oversees Red Bull’s teams and academies in Europe, Africa, South America and the United States, Soler was savvy enough to delegate responsibility for the M.L.S. draft to the already installed coaching and scouting staff. The result: solid picks that included the current starters Tim Ream and Tony Tchani.
“Erik went to the combine and agreed with our assessment of players,” the team’s assistant coach, Richie Williams, said. “This is a group effort, but the bottom line is Erik is the guy in charge who is putting the right people in place.”
What was most significant about the draft, and an indication of a subtle but important shift in management philosophy, was that Soler and the Red Bulls made their selections only a short time after hiring a coach, the Swede Hans Backe (who was not at the draft and did not see the picks until the start of training camp). Putting a team together is a collaborative effort, but like many top European clubs and the best operations in North American sports, Red Bull wanted to install a leader with a distinct vision — since players and coaches come and go.
“Some other clubs have hired technical directors after their head coaches, and the reporting lines are blurred about who ultimately is in charge,” Nelson Rodriguez, an M.L.S. vice president, said. “I think what Red Bull has done is very smart, candidly, and I think has been something lacking for a long time. They adopted a European model. Their stadium has a European feel to it. They’ve hired experienced pros to manage the day-to-day soccer in Erik and Coach Backe.”