Interim coach Richie Williams is essentially playing out the string as the Red Bulls whimper to the close of the season -- the first team in Major League Soccer to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs this season after a Sept. 12 loss to Kansas City. Mentally and emotionally, however, this team was out of contention in June, with lackluster play that resulted in a 13-game stretch in the league without a win. There has been virtually nothing to play for since midsummer, but right now, the team is playing for Williams' job.
Too bad the Red Bulls probably will deem it fitting to bring in a "name" European coach to take over the team next season. After all, this is a Red Bulls franchise that has poured nearly $300 million dollars into the team in just four years of ownership. Williams, despite the fact that he never played overseas, is the perfect fit. The Red Bulls seem bent on bringing in current Portugal national team manager Carlos Queiroz to take over the job -- he who led the MetroStars into the playoffs in 1996.
But Williams has the right experience for the job.
All told, Williams appeared 20 times with the national team, providing a tough presence as a no-nonsense, physical midfielder. After eight years in the league -- Williams began play during MLS's inaugural season in 1996 -- he moved to his alma mater, Virginia, for a stint as an assistant coach. In 2006, he joined first-year coach Mo Johnston with the Red Bulls. By June, he was named interim head coach, and he returned to his assistant role when Bruce Arena was named to the head-coach position in August. Since then, Williams has assisted Arena and more recently the disastrous Juan Carlos Osorio.
And now it's his time to shine.
For a franchise in flux and turmoil almost continually since 1996, Williams would bring a sense of stability and perhaps the right mentality. He does, after all, know the league, and it doesn't hurt that he is a Jersey boy who was born about 90 minutes south of Giants Stadium. Queiroz, however impressive his résumé is, hasn't experienced the league in more then a decade, and MLS certainly has changed over that time.
Also an important factor for Williams is that he has the respect of the team.
"He's definitely had an impact on me and the development of my game," New York midfielder Luke Sassano said. "I mean, he's one of the best who has ever played in this country at his position, as a defensive midfielder."
The mentality change in New York has led to the recent hot streak over the past four games. The Red Bulls' one loss during that stretch, to Kansas City, came via a horrific mental blunder from Jorge Rojas, which led directly to the Wizards' goal. And in Friday's 1-1 tie with New England, an abysmal noncall by the referee could have given New York its third win of the past four games. With nothing to play for, the Red Bulls are achieving results. What all this means is that New York is playing loose and free.
"I think Richie has brought a different mentality to the team," said former MLS midfielder Kyle Martino, now an analyst with ESPN. "He's got the team set up for their strengths. I think what he has done is given the players an understanding of what is expected from them, and then he puts them in the place where they can maximize their talents."
And that is in stark contrast to Osorio, who was profound at tinkering. The former coach would play forwards on the wing, midfielders at forward, defensive midfielders in the creative role and wingers along the back line. If he could have moved the team's bench, Osorio probably would have. Consider the case of Mac Kandji, one of the most exciting forwards in the league, who consistently was used by Osorio on the left wing. Marooned on the sidelines, Kandji's impact often was lessened. Williams came in and put Kandji up top in his natural role.
"You need those guys in front of the goal to score goals, and I like the idea that he likes to go and get the ball and be involved in the game," Williams said. "But he has to stay in front of goal."
Then in Friday's game with New England, Williams saw that the Red Bulls' midfield was lacking composure and inserted Albert Celades. The former Barcelona and Real Madrid man brought a soothing presence to the team, dictating the flow from a holding position. It was the control of the midfield that earned the Red Bulls the 1-1 tie and, truthfully, should have earned them the win.
Simply put, the fact that he is earning results with such a bad team -- he's doubled the team's win total from the previous 22 games -- means Williams has earned the right to take this team into Red Bull Arena next season.
Unfortunately, he probably won't get that chance.
Quote of the Week
"Soccer is the same language everywhere you go. It will not take me long to get acclimated with the team. I have already trained with the team for three days and then the game tonight, so going into this week of more training, I should be ready to go next weekend. Soccer is one language."
-- Newly acquired Kansas City forward Kei Kamara on fitting in with his new team.
• Columbus drew Chicago 2-2 on Sunday. The Fire now are 4-4-5 this year at home.
• Shoot first, ask questions later. Josh Wolff is in the top 10 in the league's points tally with 10 goals. Wolff has yet to register an assist on the season.
• Toronto FC's offensive woes continue. The Reds registered only one shot on goal in a 2-0 loss to Los Angeles.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com.