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October 18, 2012
Sources: Red Bulls GM fired because of poor job performance reviews from staff

Erik Soler was removed as Red Bulls GM due to poor job review performances by the team's staff, sources said.
Erik Soler was removed as Red Bulls GM due to poor job review performances by the team's staff, sources said.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
By Kristian R. Dyer and Michael Lewis Editors

Multiple sources have indicated that the removal of sporting director and general manager Erik Soler two weeks ago was a long time coming and the result of vetting by the Red Bulls' new Head of Global Soccer.

Speaking to on the condition of anonymity, multiple sources throughout the league said that Soler was fired after reports began to filter back to Red Bulls headquarters in Austria about his work performance and the overall direction of the club.

Soler, who was hired by the company in December, 2009 to oversee the on the field product, produced an Eastern Conference championship in 2010. He saw his Red Bulls make the playoffs again the next year and has a star-studded squad again primed for the post-season.

But even this success apparently was not enough to save Soler, who was replaced as general manager with former AS Monaco president Jerome de Bontin two weeks ago. Soler was named an advisor to the team.

The process for the firing of Soler came in the weeks leading up to the July hiring of Gerard Houllier as Head of Global Soccer for Red Bull. The Red Bull ownership was looking for Houllier to adjust the flagship franchise in New York that, under Soler, had been one of the top two spending teams in the league. The Red Bulls, however, had won the conference only once and never had any significant silverware to boast of. In his background research on the franchise, Houllier started asking pointed questions about Soler, sources said.

The questions were directed at management-level individuals within the New York organization and dealt with the approachability of Soler, if he was “hands on” in the office, what the morale of the staff was like and even “How often was he in the office?”

In the words of one source, Soler “got buried” in the responses from the staff, especially in terms of his work ethic and performance. There was also an apparent backlash to the spending of the franchise and the lack of returns on the field and in the stands. The Red Bulls have yet to win a major trophy, a shocking statistic given that they were one of the league’s inaugural franchises in 1996.

One source said that “what Red Bull wants from this team is what Los Angeles did last year and that is win the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. That’s what they want given the payroll they’re shelling out.”

“I think by any standard, they were a failure on the field, in the front office,” one source said. “What they heard back from the staff confirmed what they saw with their own eyes. Bad attendance, no trophies.”

The Red Bulls stand 11th out of 19 teams in Major League Soccer attendance at 17,848, under the league average of 18,650. Despite enjoying better results at home this season, their attendance has dropped 9.36 percent from 2011.

Prior to coming to the Red Bulls, Soler ran Norwegian club IK Start but the side went into bankruptcy.

Last summer Soler hired Chris Heck as president of business operations. Heck is a former NBA executive with ties to the Portland Timbers but the move was not without flaws. Season ticket numbers declined as did overall attendance and Heck was relieved of his duties in August. Heck's duties have been divided up among multiple employees in Red Bulls upper management.

Speaking to the media before the Red Bulls' 2-0 home loss to the Chicago Fire on Oct. 6, the newly appointed de Bontin said his top priority from the energy drink brand is “Turning this franchise into the top soccer organization in North America. Attendance in many ways will be a priority.” He also spoke of the need for New York to be a “very competitive team.”

One source said that Houllier will not be taking over the sporting side of New York as some rumors have suggested but will retain an overarching position that directs all of Red Bulls soccer properties throughout the world.

The timing of the move is odd given that the Red Bulls are close to clinching their third consecutive playoff appearance. One source speculated that it was part of New York’s plan to let de Bontin with evaluate the franchise with games still left in the regular season. This will afford de Bontin the opportunity to see the actions of the front office in a regular season setting and not just the post-season, affording him a first-hand look at operations, tickets sales, scouting, personnel and the coaching staff in action.

Were this the post-season and things in wind down mode, the same assessments could not be made, the source said, as during crunch time.

As for the man de Bontin has replaced, there is a mixed legacy. Another league source said that Soler had earned a reputation as “difficult to deal with” and that teams are loathe to make trades with the Red Bulls because of this.

According to another source in the league, he said it was difficult to reach Soler and instead dealt with Red Bulls technical director Ricardo Campos.

"I don't think he had a sincere desire to foster working relationships with general managers, technical directors or agents league wide," the source said. "There was an arrogance about how he worked."

As it turned out, Soler's image had improved in recent months as he had learned the mechanisms of MLS.

There were struggles no doubt, as Soler pieced together a deep team this year but the Red Bulls sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. With the league’s highest payroll, this is far from an ideal spot on the table.

While Soler can point to some successes, there were many misses as well, including the signing of Ibrahim Salou in 2009 and the designated player deal given to the injury prone Rafa Marquez.

As a policy, the Red Bulls do not discuss the termination of employees with the media.

Soler was unavailable for comment.

The Red Bulls did not respond to a request for comment on the termination.

Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets and can be followed for practice updates and news @KristianRDyer
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