By FRANCO PANIZO
A new era is about to begin for the New York Red Bulls, one that will see the club look much different than it ever has since Red Bull bought the team eight years ago.
For much of the decade, the Red Bulls have been synonymous with spending big. They have splashed cash to bring in big-name veteran stars like Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and Tim Cahill, the hope being that they could help the club achieve success both on and off the field.
Results have been mixed, however. New York has struggled to consistently garner attention in the local market and managed to win just one trophy, the 2013 Supporters’ Shield, in recent years. But with Henry’s decision to leave the club, the Red Bulls have the luxury of hitting the reset button going into 2015 and are planning to do so.
The Red Bulls have begun plotting for the future with a game plan that focuses a bit more on the long term. A fresh strategy that may not be as eye-catching as the trademark money-spending ways of years past, but one the club’s current brass believes will help the team be even more competitive on a consistent basis.
The Red Bulls have yet to reveal their plans, but head coach Mike Petke recently hinted at changes being on the horizon.
“I don’t think I’m ready to talk about that right now, but we have a very good plan for the future, and it is going to take understanding from our fan base, understanding from the media perhaps,” said Petke. “We want to build something, I want to build something, and I think that we have a good idea of how to do that.”
What does that idea entail? Sources tell SBI that it will involves changing the club’s long-held philosophy on signing big-name players, and more.
With regards to acquiring another Designated Player, the Red Bulls have stated publicly since the end of the 2013 season that they want to sign a playmaker who comes in at a much younger age, not to mention a much cheaper price, than established veterans like Henry, Cahill or Marquez. Think of a player in the mold of Diego Valeri or Javier Morales, talented but relatively unknown commodities who are capable of being stars and come at a much cheaper price.
Sources tell SBI that part of that strategy is so that the Red Bulls can have a player capable of being the centerpiece of the franchise during the years leading up to and in his prime. The thinking is that if that player succeeds, a decision can be made in the later years of his career whether to keep him around or sell him, possibly for a profit, and start fresh.
Some might argue that this would be a poor approach given that deep-pocketed New York City FC is set to enter the fray and take some of local spotlight next year. But sources have said that the Red Bulls are confident in their plan, especially since they have tried signing established marquee players in the past only to come up short in MLS play.
All this is not to say that the Red Bulls will completely shy away from big-name acquisitions, like an Henry or Cahill, in the future. Not if the right name and pricetag came across the club’s desk. But the team wants to follow the more proven MLS recipe for success and avoid signing only Designated Players in the latter stages of their careers, a move the Red Bulls have done in recent years with little in the way of championships.
The new strategy is why it is likely that New York undergoes a sizable overhaul this winter, a shakeup that had to be expected once it became clear Henry would not be returning. Sources tell SBI the club is preparing to part ways with several veterans, which began late on Tuesday with the announcement of some contract options not being picked up.
Bobby Convey, who has not been seen at the club in some months, was one of those players. Sources have told SBI that Convey, whose locker room has been empty for some time and not been made available to media, is leaning towards retirement after dealing with a problematic health issue since August.
As far as plans for a USL Pro team goes, Red Bulls’ sporting director Andy Roxburgh said in September that the club was skipping launching one for next season after saying early in the year that it intended to have one in 2015.
According to sources, one of the reasons for that decision was not having a grass field capable of providing a true professional experience for younger players – with bleachers for fans, proper lighting, etc. The club also wanted to have the proper setting and atmosphere in place before committing to upstarting a USL Pro side, but that wasn’t possible under the circumstances.
The Red Bulls began exploring options for a USL Pro affiliate – an MLS mandate for clubs without a third-division team of their own – but have yet to announce any plans for that and may be reconsidering what route to take ahead of the 2015 season.
In terms of a potential sale of the Red Bulls, which has been rumored greatly in recent months, sources have told SBI that the club’s ownership is not actively looking to sell the team. It might be sexy to think of the energy drink-sponsored franchise being sold off to a new ownership group, but the Red Bulls have stated publicly that they are committed to the franchise and its supporters.
MLS commissioner Don Garber expressed his confidence in the commitment of Red Bull during his State of the League address on Tuesday.
“The Red Bulls are committed to Major League Soccer. How this discussion got out that they weren’t, I don’t understand,” said Garber. “I was out in Austria recently, I met with (Red Bull owner) Dietrich Mateschitz, as we met in the past.
“How anybody can question the commitment that this team has, they’ve spent more than any other club. They’ve built and privately financed the most expensive stadium in Major League Soccer, they compete in a market where the cost of operating from a marketing perspective and a staffing perspective are more than any other club, and they have invested more by significant percentages than any other club in Major League Soccer.”
Red Bull has continued to invest, and the club’s recent decision to fund a multi-million dollar expansion of their training facility in New Jersey suggests the ownership remains committed to the club.
What does appear ready to change though is how the club spends its resources on building the roster. With Henry gone, and Cahill not guaranteed to return, the Red Bulls appear ready to usher in a new era where building a balanced team, rather than showcasing big-money stars, is the priority.