Hans Backe has it all under control
UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Hans Backe is savoring the little things. The first day of spring's sun. A cup of strong, non-American coffee. His snus -- the tiny pouches of tobacco some Swedes can't live without tucking into their lower lip a few times a day.
He's just put his pricey New York Red Bulls through their paces during morning practice, gently steering his veteran team through 7-on-7 spacing drills. It isn't hard to spot him. His snow-white hair and stubble of a few days set him apart from the other dark-blue training uniforms. He looks happy; smiles often.
What's that? The Red Bulls have started their 2012 Major League Soccer season 0-2 after the second-most expensive MLS team of all time only scraped into the playoffs at the eleventh hour in 2011, steering clear of total disaster by a hair? And Backe is facing more criticism and pressure than any other coach in MLS? You don't say.
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If Backe looks like his team's form crisis -- which is going on a year now -- doesn't stress him out in the slightest, it's only because it doesn't. He's sure of himself. He's 60 and has been at this coaching thing for 30 years, 27 of them on his own, winning four domestic titles in Denmark, and three as Sven-Goran Eriksson's assistant with Manchester City and the Mexican national team. He's been fired before. He got canned after three league games at Panathinaikos, even though he was 7-1-3 overall. He says he is still not sure why he was let go. And he and Eriksson were fired after City's best season in 34 years. With El Tri, they were terminated because they failed to win away games -- but that dismissal was fair, he argues, since that's what they were hired to do. It's part of the game, part of the profession.
"I've been involved so many, many years, so I don't bother," he says in his sing-songy Swedish accent. "When I was young, I probably would have felt a little bit more nervous with the pressure and things like that. Now I know I do it my way and if that doesn't succeed, OK, then I get sacked. But if I do it my way and get sacked I have no problem with that. Because this is what I believe in." Besides, Backe never even meant to become a coach in the first place. He fell into the profession when a friend pushed him to give it a shot after his brief playing career was over.
And when you've worked in the pressure cookers of Greece, Mexico and a newly ambitious Premier League team, nothing American fans and media can throw at you is all that bad. "It's nothing, definitely a walk in the park comparing to these leagues and the pressure in England," Backe says.
Backe understands the industry's vagaries and wanton ways. "You sign a contract to get fired," he says. "When you have done so many years and have been involved in all the different countries with the pressure and the media and things like that, I think at one point you just tell yourself, 'I can't take this serious.'" His contract with New York is up at the end of the season. He'd like another one. But after Panathinaikos, he stopped worrying about getting fired. There will be other jobs after this one. There always have been.
So if Backe can address his squad with an unburdened mind, it isn't an act. It's a big advantage, in fact. "That must be quite easy for the players to handle if they see the coach is not getting stressed or anything," he says. "The players are like a mirror of how the coach's face looks in front of them. 'If the coach's face is a bit negative, that will affect the players' -- Arsene Wenger said that."
Win or lose, Backe exudes calm. "I don't think he changes [according to results]," midfielder Dax McCarty says. "He makes sure we keep a positive mindset. He's very calm and relaxed and makes sure we know that it's early in the season and that we're still trying to figure out some kinks."
In this, Backe is the guardian of the big picture. "I've told the players there's no need to panic or think negatively or anything," he says. "Just stay and be confident. It's only two games into the season. There's 32 games to play."
If Backe's learned anything, it's that a steady hand is the key to management. "In football, there's no spectacular things you can do, no revolution that can change that much," he says. Backe trusts that he's a capable coach, having honed his craft over three decades. He talks to his players daily, motivating without giving rousing speeches. He coaches where he can and prepares meticulously.
"He's very dedicated," experienced Norwegian defender Jan Gunnar Solli says. "His hunger for winning games and the way he tries to prepare himself and also the way we do the breakdown on each opponent, he's definitely the most professional [coach] I've ever been involved with. His messages are very clear, but of course you always have your own options."
[American players] are so willing to learn and they adapt very quick. I was so surprised. They're intelligent guys. They're hungry guys. They're a little more committed than European players." --Hans Backe
Backe was brought up in accordance with the rigid Scandinavian soccer philosophy espousing fitness, organization and defensive soundness. But in his meandering career, he's acquired an appreciation for possession, individualism and initiative, too. He still works by much the same methods as he did when he started out. During preseason, he begins with his center back pairing, drilling them in his system, playing them against two attackers. Then he adds a third defender. And a fourth. And then a midfielder. And another. Until he has a squad of 11 players. He literally builds his teams piece by piece, mixing and matching players, testing and tinkering. "I build it up so I hope the players can see the methodology," Backe says. "I haven't changed that. That has worked in every, every club in the world, since 1979."
Backe has found American players to be especially malleable. "They are so willing to learn and they adapt very quick," he says. "I was so surprised. They're intelligent guys. They're hungry guys. They're a little more committed than European players."
In building his Red Bulls, Backe has been inarguably the beneficiary of some serious cash-splashing by his Austrian energy drink-hawking owners, chiefly in the form of the $10 million-a-year designated player spine of striker Thierry Henry and midfielder Rafa Marquez. But he and technical director Erik Soler have made some shrewd, low-budget moves as well. They've drafted capable players in the second round, like the since-sold U.S. national team center back Tim Ream and starting rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara. They've plucked striker Luke Rodgers from the fourth division in England and defender Stephen Keel from the minor leagues. And Backe made sure they felt like they belonged and could contribute.
"For me personally, he's been awesome," says Keel, who became a starter late last season. "As the season went along and I was called upon, he gave me confidence and pulled me aside and said, 'Hey, make your decisions and I'll support you.' As a player that's fantastic to hear -- that a coach has so much confidence in you. It really helped me come along."
The team you see today isn't entirely of Backe's making, though. Henry and Marquez were signed to the Red Bulls by the corporation's head honchos in Austria before Soler arrived in November 2009 and before Backe, who had just resigned from Notts County over a budget dispute, was hired in January 2010.
The squad has confounded fans and media alike, vacillating between dominance and malpractice. It's surprised Backe, too. He didn't expect it to be competitive in 2010, when his team won the Eastern Conference regular-season title. "I must say that was a huge, huge surprise," Backe says. "I didn't think the team was good enough. The year before they were the worst team in MLS history."
Then came 2011, perhaps the oddest season any MLS team has ever lived through. The Red Bulls started 4-1-2, then went through a dire four-month swoon in which they went 2-5-13, before finishing 4-2-1 and clinching the 10th and final playoff berth, winning a wild-card game against FC Dallas and crashing out to the Los Angeles Galaxy in a closely fought conference semifinal. "It was a tricky, strange season that started phenomenal, dropped poor, finished off well," Backe says. "But we had this bittersweet feeling after the season that we should have done better."
Nobody seems to look into [players leaving for international duty]. That pisses me off a bit. Just tell Barcelona to be without six starters and see what they can do." --Hans Backe
Backe blames the enduring midseason slump on constantly losing key players to their national teams as the CONCACAF Gold Cup and other international calendar events cut right through the MLS schedule. "Nobody seems to look into that," he says. "That pisses me off a bit. Just tell Barcelona to be without six starters and see what they can do."
This year, he should have all his starters for the entire season. And 2011 taught him how to achieve enduring success in MLS. "You just need to be a bit more direct, take advantage of the breaks," he says. "Possession is good -- if there is an end product."
Aesthetics will be subservient to winning. "I know it's all about the results," Backe says. "And the way you pick up the results, at the end of the day, no one cares."
In the meantime, he'll enjoy the sun, coffee and snus. He'll oversee his stable of 18 race horses in Kentucky, his beloved trotters. He'll continue to suffer along with the Cincinnati Bengals, as he has for 22 years. He'll watch hockey. He'll play golf. He'll keep going to indie rock concerts; he has tickets to go see The Vaccines next month. He'll eat good food. He'll walk around New York City. If he finishes out the season, he'll equal Octavio Zambrano as the longest-serving coach of the New York franchise. If not, he'll find a new job like he always has.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.