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.