Former Bafana Bafana defender has made an impressive start as interim head coach of Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls.
First published in Daily Maverick 168
Pitso Mosimane’s move to coach Egyptian side Al Ahly was greeted with much hype and fanfare, and even a congratulatory note from President Cyril Ramaphosa, but there is another South African working at a higher level whose exploits have gone largely unheralded.
Former Bafana Bafana left-back Bradley Carnell is in the middle of an interim head coach stint at one of the premium franchises in Major League Soccer (MLS), New York Red Bulls, having turned around the fortunes of the side that had been in the midst of a dismal campaign.
It will come to an end when the Austrian coach Gerhard Struber takes up the reins next month, but the experience has been an excellent one for Carnell, turning the team into play-off contenders, and confirms his status as one of South Africa’s brightest tacticians.
The 43-year-old arrived in New Jersey as assistant coach to Chris Armas in March 2017 after similar roles at Free State Stars and Orlando Pirates. He was cherry-picked for the position by the highly regarded Ralf Rangnick, who was head of sport and development at Red Bull.
Rangnick, who coached Carnell at VfB Stuttgart, knew the former defender from his 12 years spent in the German Bundesliga and saw in him someone who had all the attributes to succeed in the dugout.
But Carnell admits he expected a different outcome when he was called into the New York Red Bulls office at their training base in Whippany, New Jersey, following the sacking of Armas in early September.
“When the club let go of the previous coach and his other assistant I thought maybe I was also going to get the sack. I went into the office thinking my number was up, to be honest, but instead they asked me to be the interim head coach,” Carnell told DM168. “It was a bit of a shock, but this is what I had been working towards for the last few years and now it was here. The fact that it was interim coach did not bother me, whether you are there for six weeks, six months or six years, you treat the job the same way.
“The team managed to adjust really well. Apart from a couple of guys who had played in Europe, 90% of these players had never gone through a coaching change mid-season, which tells you something about how the sport is in America.”
Carnell, who played for Bafana Bafana at the 2002 World Cup, stabilised the ship and the proof of his methods has been in the results.
“We made a good, positive turnaround, winning three of the last five [games]. It is exciting preparing your team to play against World Cup winners like Blaise Matuidi and Thierry Henry, who was the opposition coach [against Montreal Impact].
“Working out a plan for quality players like Gonzalo Higuain … it is challenging, but at the same time exciting.
“Especially with a young team like we have, who have a strong culture and a strong philosophy, and who play a high-energy brand of football. I have been really comfortable in the role and enjoyed it.”
Carnell says the arrival of Struber, who must still sort out his paperwork and go through quarantine procedures, was not unexpected despite his own success, and he is ready to take up the assistant coach role once more.
“The arrival of the new coach is still four or five weeks away, so we have to keep on going and maintain the standards we have set.
“Would I slip back into another role? For sure. Can I imagine working with the new coach? Absolutely.
“I am a team player and a servant to the game of soccer. I have a lot of admiration for the club and the people working here,” he says.
But his stint as the head coach has reaffirmed the desire to have that role on a permanent basis one day, be it in New Jersey or elsewhere, though he will not rush out to find it.
“I always believe that everything is about timing and you need to understand your role and what is currently required. In no way am I pushing for a head coach role [elsewhere].
“There were a couple of things that came across my desk recently, there was something in Malaysia a few months back. There have been a few other things that have been interesting, but have I really wanted to take them up?
“It is maybe not the right time. If opportunities come I will look at them seriously, but right now it is about focusing on the team I am at.
“Whether I will be here next year … I don’t know, contracts are running out, but I couldn’t give a damn, it is just about the team right now and we will worry about that later,” he adds.
Carnell, who set the record for the youngest player to debut in South Africa as a 16-year-old at Wits University in 1993, believes that the MLS is on the rise. It was once a league derided as an old age home where players went to finish their careers, but is now an exporter of some of the brightest young talent in the game.
“The league is physical, the games are fast and the scheduling is incredibly tough. The weather as well, it can be snowing in New Jersey and you fly to Orlando where you have 30˚C heat, so that takes some adjustment. There is a lot to think about as a coach,” Carnell said.
“You look at guys such as Miguel Almirón, who was at Atlanta United, Tyler Adams, who was with us and left for Leipzig [in the Bundesliga], Alphonso Davies, now a star at Bayern Munich. There is now this mix of excellent homegrown talent and emerging South American players.”
SA coaches slowly going global
It is exceptionally rare for South Africans to coach in top leagues overseas – besides Carnell there has also been Alan Koch, who had a stint in the MLS with FC Cincinnati last year and is now in the second tier with Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Before that Chris O’Loughlin had a spell in charge of Belgian top-flight side Sint-Truiden, with Benni McCarthy as his assistant. But there has been little else to cheer.
Carnell believes these positions need to be earned and applauded the ambition of Mosimane to move from the comfort of Mamelodi Sundowns to the tempestuous environment of Al Ahly.
“We have to earn it. We have to put ourselves on display and test ourselves against big stars,” he says. “Every day you have to prove yourself and show you are capable of growing and being comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
“I think what Pitso has done is amazing, it is really awesome the opportunity that has been given to him.
“I speak to Alan Koch on a regular basis, we always touch base and chat about the game. He is always asking for a couple of recommendations! There are also a couple of medical fitness staff here [in the MLS] from South Africa.
“Then you have Quinton Fortune at Reading [in the English Championship], who is a first-team coach there.
“So it’s great that we have people who are ambitious enough to go and try these things, and are qualified and good enough to pull it off,” he says.
“Slowly but surely we are grinding away at it; it is so much fun to watch everybody forging their paths. Like Gary Player always says, the harder you work, the luckier you get. I truly believe that.” DM/DM168