HARRISON, N.J. – The goal for freshly-minted New York Red Bulls general manager Jerome de Bontin is simple: Help transform the club into the top soccer franchise in North America.
And here’s what it’s not: To decide who stays and who goes after the team’s season ends.
Four days after being announced as the man to take over for general manager and sporting director Erik Soler, de Bontin (above) met with New York media Saturday to talk about his new role with the Red Bulls, revealing that he will focus more on business matters than on-field personnel, and that his hiring was the direct result of Red Bull hiring Gerard Houllier as Head of Global Soccer for all the teams.
“Gerard and I are old-time friends,” de Bontin told reporters. “I had tried to hire him as a coach in Monaco. That didn’t work out [but] as he thought about what to do in New York, he knew of my experience and the things that I’ve done with the federation and foundation of youth soccer and so on.
“He approached me at the end of July,” he added. “It took a month; eventually he brought me into Salzburg to meet with the head office and [Red Bull co-owner Dietrich Mateschitz] and what really got me excited was the commitment, that clearly Red Bull wants to be in soccer the way they have demonstrated their ability in Formula 1. They want to be first, they want to win and they’re willing to commit the resources and the time.”
De Bontin admitted he is happy with team’s current crop of talent and that he thinks they can win MLS Cup, despite their inconsistent performances. The Red Bulls lost to the Chicago Fire 2-0 on Saturday at Red Bull Arena, and currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with two regular season games remaining.
“The objective has been clearly described to me as turning this franchise in the top soccer organization in North America,” he said. “Attendance in many ways will be a priority, but for people to come and for people to enjoy the product, we have to work on making the day experience one that they remember.
“But more importantly we have to make sure we have a very competitive team, that we play a good game and that we have results,” he added. “The two, I think, go hand in hand.”
De Bontin made it clear that while at Monaco he was tasked with cutting back on spending, and with the Red Bulls he is in charge of “growing the business.”
Essentially, de Bontin will be the one calling the shots while trying to improve attendance, but he won’t handle the sporting director duties. That person has not yet been identified (at least not publicly), but whoever it is will be the one to decide which players to sign for 2013 and whether the Red Bulls offer head coach Hans Backe a new contract after his current deal ends after the season.
“Gerard will at some point in the near future appoint a sports director for here in New York and in due time the sports director will then evaluate what direction to go for next year,” de Bontin said. “Unequivocally today we are behind Hans and we are going to be with him through the end of the season. As to next season, we don’t know right now.”
De Bontin also discussed what Soler’s duties with the Red Bulls are now. Soler is staying with the club as a consultant and he will help de Bontin through this transition period.
“Because we are going to bring a new sporting director and because I am in some fashion new to the Red Bull organization, we asked Erik if he was willing to stay with us for some time,” he said. “It is his decision as to how long it will be and he very graciously and enthusiastically agreed to that and in fact, he and I had lunch yesterday. We spent a couple of hours talking about the important issues that I am facing in my chair.”
De Bontin also touched on the Red Bulls’ need to get more from the MLS SuperDraft. In years past, the Red Bulls have traded away a sizable chunk of their draft picks and have not seemed to really value what the draft can offer.
“I’m very familiar with the college draft and the college scene,” he said. “I do believe that what we have in America is different from what it is in Europe. We have a DNA that most Europeans don’t understand.
“I think there’s real value in our players going onto college, playing sports, getting an education and in the end they may mature slower than the European counterparts, but we have plenty of examples of players who have gone on to have great careers who did play in college. Therefore, I think the draft should be a greater focus on our part for years to come.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at Franco8813@gmail.com.