Every cycle has an end. The New York Red Bulls just reminded everyone of that harsh reality.
The Red Bulls bid farewell to long-time servants Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips on Thursday, choosing to move into the future without their services. Both players had been staples with the club for the majority of this decade, but the Red Bulls felt now was the time to turn the page and put an end to this chapter in the team’s history.
“When I sit here in this position that’s my ultimate goal: how do I construct a team that will bring the New York Red Bulls an MLS Cup,” Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett said on a conference call on Thursday afternoon. “That is the thing that is at the forefront of everything we think about and these are tough decisions you make and I think it’s part of it. Our main goal is how do we construct something that can help us win championships and I understand (fan frustration) but I can’t make emotional decisions.
“It’s just, again, ‘What is the best for the New York Red Bulls and what is going to give us the best chance to try and bring a trophy here?’ I look through those lenses and that’s what I think about.”
Some degree of change always felt like it was inevitable following the conclusion of a frustrating Red Bulls campaign that ended with a mediocre regular season and first round exit in the playoffs. Robles and Wright-Phillips seemed to know it, too, sharing a warm embrace on the field in the aftermath of their postseason loss to the Philadelphia Union last month.
With Robles at 35-years-old and Wright-Phillips at 34, age was clearly a factor in the club’s decision-making. Robles still looked the part in 2019, but another factor in the goalkeeper and team captain’s departure is that there is already a capable replacement lined up in long-time backup Ryan Meara.
“We have a lot of confidence in Ryan,” Hamlett said. “I think if you look at the run he had with the USL team winning a championship and the (U.S.) Open Cup run and the few games he had in MLS when he had to step in when Luis was out, we have a high level of confidence in Ryan.
“He’s waited for his opportunity and he’s stepped up when he’s been called upon, so we do have a high level of confidence in Ryan.”
As for Wright-Phillips, the Red Bulls have decided to part ways with the aging striker rather than trying to keep him around on a high salary. The prolific striker endured an injury-plagued season, and never quite looked like himself the few times he did get on the field. He finished the year with just two goals and four assists in nine starts.
“We just felt that the time has come for us to change and add a player that can be a little bit more now looking forward to looking more like the Red Bull team in terms of how we want to play,” Hamlett said when asked about Wright-Phillips. “I don’t want use (the phrase of the end of) the cycle, but when you look at things, the timing makes sense for us now to make that decision. Like I mentioned, we’re thankful for everything that Brad has given to the club.”
With the two key veterans gone, the Red Bulls will head into 2020 with big shoes to fill, especially in terms of leadership. Robles and Wright-Phillips were the players the club’s young roster turned to both on the field and in the locker room in recent years, but neither of them will be around next year to help steer the ship.
For Hamlett, that just means other players from the returning roster will have to step up and take on those roles.
“We feel now when you look at guys like Aaron Long, Sean Davis, Kemar (Lawrence), even a guy like Ryan Meara who’s been around, now they’re not young guys anymore,” said Hamlett. “They’re sort of guys with experience, with years under their belts, and been in big games, big moments. We feel now it’s sort of passing the baton to those guys that can take on that leadership role and take on the experience that they’ve gained from guys like Brad and Luis in how to be big parts in the team.
“We feel we have a core of guys that can continue to carry that along.”
The Red Bulls will also have to find a way to replace the veteran duo’s impact on the field. The club may have gotten a head start in doing so with Wright-Phillips because of his health problems in 2019, but never really found a true solution. What’s more, both Wright-Phillips and Robles have consistently been centerpieces and game-changers for the club.
Their departures mean the end of an era at Red Bull Arena, and the start of a new one.
“These guys are always going to be part of the Red Bull family,” Hamlett said. “I think this is something that we’re trying to create a culture for guys who have given a lot to our club and have the opportunity that if they want to do something within the organization, then those are discussions we can have down the road.
“They are two wonderful guys, just really good guys in terms of who they are and what they have given to the club.”