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The SBI View: Red Bulls can blame their owners for going from MLS title contenders to small-spending afterthought

Despite the obvious challenges and difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been a calendar year to remember for Red Bull’s Global Soccer Network.

RB Leipzig reached the UEFA Champions League semifinals, attaining an improbable level of success just 11 years after the club was formed. Meanwhile, Red Bull Salzburg won a league and cup double in Austria on the heels of an impressive showing in the Champions League group stage.

As much as the past 12 months have given parent company Red Bull every reason to feel good about its investments in the sport, the past year has not been quite as kind to Red Bull’s American club, the New York Red Bulls, which has devolved from perennial MLS Cup contender to small-spending squad that is a shell of the team that won three MLS Supporters’ Shields in six seasons.

The contrasting fortunes of Red Bull’s European and American clubs shouldn’t be seen as a fluke, but rather the consequence of an ownership group that has put far more resources into its German and Austrian squads, and has turned the Red Bulls into an MLS afterthought just two years after the club finished with the most points in league history.

So what changed? It isn’t a stretch to see a correlation between RB Leipzig’s promotion to the German Bundesliga in 2016 with a clear shift in priorities for Red Bull, a shift that was destined to hurt the MLS team’s prospects eventually.

Just two years after RB Leipzig’s step up, Tyler Adams left the Red Bulls for Germany, in January of 2019. He was one of the Red Bulls most influential players, and a driving force behind the team’s 2018 Supporters’ Shield. Just six months prior, in the summer of 2018, then-Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch left MLS in the middle of the season to join RB Leipzig’s coaching staff.

Those two major departures were not followed by any major moves by Red Bull, nor major signings. In fact, the past year saw several of the team’s most prominent players leave, and in the case of star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, the Red Bulls failed to adequately replace him, much as they failed to replace Adams.

So in the two years since Marsch left for Leipzig, the Red Bulls have effectively gutted a championship caliber team, and the parent company has invested very little in revamping the squad, leaving head coach Chris Armas to try and continue producing results despite having one of the smallest payrolls in MLS.

If you are surprised at Red Bull’s seeming lack of support, you shouldn’t be. We have seen this before from Red Bull, which was slow to spend on its roster in the first four years it owned the MLS team. Juan Pablo Angel was the only prominent signing of those early years — Claudio Reyna was a high-profile addition, but landing him at the tail end of his career didn’t require much heavy lifting.

The Red Bulls from 2006 to 2009 endured a stretch that included what was essentially a lost year in 2006 followed by Bruce Arena’s hiring and Angel’s arrival in 2007. Arena was abruptly fired after his first full season in a move that was a clear blunder by an ownership group that showed its detachment from the team. Juan Carlos Osorio took charge in 2008 and led a patchwork squad to an improbable MLS Cup final despite being a largely mediocre squad.

The 2009 season was a disaster, as Red Bull’s continued lack of investment in the team’s roster coupled with the consequence of hiring an inexperienced sporting director in Jeff Agoos to try and build a team on a shoestring budget led to one of the worst seasons in MLS history.

Red Bull did build Red Bull Arena, a considerable investment that opened its doors in 2010, and gave Red Bull a reason to start spending serious money on its squad in order to help fill their new stadium. Thierry Henry arrived in 2010, and Rafael Marquez and Tim Cahill followed soon after.

Most of the next decade saw the Red Bulls thrive, with the team’s real peak coming under Marsch, who implemented a high-pressing style in line with Red Bull Global Soccer’s vision. Marsch’s system and a well-built roster helped the Red Bulls complete a run of three Supporters’ Shield titles in six seasons, though the team never could capture the elusive MLS Cup title it has never won.

Even after Marsch left, the Red Bulls appeared to be in good hands under Chris Armas, who took over with the Red Bulls in third place and led the team to the most points in MLS history (a record since broken by Los Angeles FC).

As promising as things appeared for the Red Bulls after the 2018 season, a fall was on the horizon.  Adams departure, coupled with Bradley Wright-Phillips enduring an injury-plagued 2019 season and quiet transfer window left the Red Bulls struggling to keep up with the league’s elite. Red Bull failed to fund the pursuit of quality reinforcements, and as a result the Red Bulls devolved into a middle-of-the-pack team, a squad Armas did well to qualify for the playoffs in 2019.

Things got even worse this winter, with Robles and Wright-Phillips allowed to leave and star defender Kemar Lawrence sold to Anderlecht after a contract dispute. Another quiet winter on the player acquisition front has left Armas with the team’s worst roster in a decade and one of the smallest payrolls in the league. This at a time when spending across MLS is at an all-time high thanks to an increased salary budget and spending mechanisms teams can use to acquire higher-priced talent than MLS teams could afford in years past.

This new reality is what made it sound puzzling to hear new Red Bulls head of sport Kevin Thelwell call the Red Bulls “a big club” when there is nothing to suggest the team deserves that label at the moment. There is nothing “big club” worthy about a team that is now outspent by everyone from the Philadelphia Union to the Columbus Crew, to say nothing of New York City FC, Toronto FC, LAFC, the LA Galaxy or Seattle Sounders.

Thelwell has been brought in to help the Red Bulls do a better job tapping into the foreign market, while identifying the type of young prospects that could help yield the type of gems that could be developed into stars and eventually sold, a formula that has served both Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig well.

Thelwell has only had the job for half a year, but we have yet to see any real signs that the Red Bulls are turning things around. Armas has shown himself to be a good coach, making the most of his limited roster, but the days of the Red Bulls being one of the best teams in MLS feel  like a long time ago, and look a long way away from coming back.

Red Bull may not care so much about that new reality considering how successful RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg are at the moment, but that doesn’t provide much consolation for Red Bulls fans who have been left to wonder what happened to their team as they watch Tyler Adams star in the Champions League and Jesse Marsch lift trophies an ocean away.

Comments

  1. For me, NYRB’s conscious decision to move down-market (from a team investment perspective) was actually made years ago. They just hit the jackpot on a few early bets, and now are experiencing the inevitable correction. Mostly this seed was planted in the period after Thierry Henry was finishing up in 2013-2014 and NYRB needed (another) new identity. They also realized that with NYCFC moving into their turf, the idea of differentiating themselves by being “big spenders” was probably untenable. *************************************************
    So around 2014-2015 they changed gears. They brought the (unheralded, at the time) Jesse Marsch. No more balloon expenditures for “global name” guys like Thierry Henry or Rafa Marquez. Instead it was guys like Kliejstan and Kemar Lawrence, with the hope that they could hit on a few prospects and academy kids. They pretty much hit the lottery with all of these things. Marsch ended up being superb, and their modest transfer market activity played out well (with existing guys like BWP becoming an MVP-level star). Not to mention they were able to bring talents like Miazga and Adams into the senior team from the academy, while picking up guys like Etienne and Muyl out of college.
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    Pretty hard for me to conclude that this apparent downturn is a reflection of an ownership failure. For the most part, they adopted a strategy that was sustainable (much moreso that their previous approach), and have not deviated. Multiple supporters shields and a consistent playoff team. What exactly would you recommend they do, besides “go buy some famous players”?

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    • The league has changed in the past few seasons though, other clubs are using GAM and TAM better and scouting better DPs, RB needs to reevaluate their strategy.

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  2. Ives, I said this to my seat section buddies in March. This is not a good team compared to prior years. We replaced none of the departures. The few replacements that have come in seem to be mediocre players. Denis Hamlett had bought in some good players but Thilwell has bought in noone good. We are in for a very disappointing season at Red Bull Arena.

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  3. What MLS should do is partner up with Manchester City, like NY did with RedBulls. Then when Messi needs to get paid in the years that he doesn’t deserve to be paid, but still wants to be….WE can foot the bill. Man City will be fine, that is all that matters.
    i realize that a lot of people were against these, they were right, but way too many were jazzed…they were wrong.

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  4. Thanks for putting words to the unending disappointment of the past year+. Instead of spending, we get tarps. You’d think that the lack of attendance preceeding the covid19 crisis would get someone at RB corporate to do something but nada.

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  5. All the people arguing with me over selling one of your best players like Dallas did. Please read this.
    And TA went to a buying team, not a selling one. But what are they doing to do with $3 million? Nothing. Lose. Dallas probably got $2 million.
    $3 million doesn’t win games. Tyler Adams does.

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    • If you read the article, you’d notice Ives’ point was they didn’t buy anyone with the money from Tyler Adams that’s the problem not that they sold a player. The other thing you missed is that RBL and RBS are also selling teams, hence why they parted with Haland and Timo Werner. The difference being NYRB again is not replacing the players that leave. NYRB thrived under Marsch with a League One player in BWP, and returning Americans like Kljestan, Robles, and Grella. Throw in an a few academy players to round out and it worked, at the time they were mid spenders. They’ve continued to try to use cheap signings mixed with academy players. The academy players haven’t been as good and the signings haven’t come through either, coupled with other teams getting better at signing DPs and NYRBs are outgunned most nights. LAFC was able to build its DM of Atuesta and Kaye for about what NYRB sold Adams for, it can be done if you try Red Bull’s aren’t trying.

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      • Maybe a more accurate description would be what it is you buy and sell. RBL typically signs young unfinished products polishing them and selling them on Dortmund and Ajax have been doing this for years. They sign experienced good players with profits who maybe aren’t the right age or quite good enough for Top 10 clubs. They field Top 15 clubs but are long shots to win CL. Le Havre would be a different type of club that develops youngsters and sells them before they are truly established making less money but enough to keep the system going but not drive the on field product forward. Juve would be buyers of established players who are usually nearing their peak years of performance, and sell players that don’t reach that peak in Turin or are on the downhill side of their careers.They aren’t generally concerned with profiting from a player. MLS seems to be moving to a more Ajax model (on a lesser scale) buy young generally in experienced SAmericans and then sell them to Europe for profit then use that profit on your DP slots and for allocation money to buy the next 18 year old. It’s hard to judge market because MLS is new to the selling game but quality young Americans in MLS tap out at 5 mil. It would be interesting to see what Morris would go for. Quality young SAmericans like Almiron went for 5x that but he was much more a MLS star than Adams or Cannon.

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