The Ali Curtis era is now in full swing.
Less than a fortnight into his tenure as Sporting Director Curtis has made probably the most controversial decision he could, firing head coach Mike Petke. Petke had been in charge of the Red Bulls for the past two seasons and amassed 30-19-19 record with the Red Bulls. He won the team's first trophy in the 2013 Supporters Shield, and took the team one game away from the Eastern Conference in 2014.
Though, long term it may end up being the right decision. Curtis came at a time when the club was at a crossroads and now one thing is certain that...
1. Mike Petke being gone instantly brings a new era for the club.
There were rumors that Mike Petke was clashing with Red Bulls management as soon as the news broke of Petke's firing at 11:58 PM on January 6. Curtis has only been in charge for two weeks, taking the position on Dec. 23.
Curtis was clearly hired knowing that he was not going to keep Mike Petke on as coach, and on Jan. 7 he got his man: Jesse Marsch. Marsch last coached in MLS for the Montreal Impact in the 2012 season. He won 12 games for the inaugural season Impact, with a 12-16-6 record.
Nonetheless, Petke is gone, and the fan's are not happy. Canning the only coach to win a trophy in team history will never go well, and despite Curtis' plan he put himself behind the eight ball. Hopefully this mean's that...
2. Ali Curtis isn't planning or sounding like he is going to be here one year
Curtis' deal for Sporting Director was for one year, but details have emerged that the former MLS executive has a detailed plan for the team, a 300 page plan to be exact.
In a conference call with reporters to clear up the "coaching situation," Curtis said that decision to fire Petke was "all his" and now he has to "own that decision."
One quote during the conference call stuck out to me:
"I have a vision and a plan and core values and a style of play of what I want to occur when I'm at a club. When I joined the New York Red Bulls, I joined the New York Red Bulls with a very sophisticated plan in terms of where we need to be over the next 12 months, over the next 36 months and over the next five years. Jesse fits into that plan."
That doesn't sound like a guy who's only going to be here one year. Despite a deeply unpopular position, it is nice having someone with a plan. It is important for management to see this through, considering they've brought on a guy and given the green light to fundamentally altering the course of the Red Bulls rebuild/retool/whatever we wanted to call it.
And whether you like the move or not...
3. Ali Curtis needed to get his coach ASAP
Preseason is just weeks away. The roster is incomplete. Curtis was pressed for time, and needed to get his guy in the job as soon as possible. Every day Petke was still in charge was a day taking away from the new coach assessing players, scouting, and preparing for the upcoming MLS draft.
Jesse Marsch worked for MLS in the years following his departure from Montreal, working in media. Curtis most likely knew Marsch from his days in MLS, so there is an instant alignment between Sporting Director and Coach.
Marsch was also an assistant coach for the United States Men's National Team under Bob Bradley. His hiring is most definitely a surprise, but when viewed in Curtis' light it bears to ask the question...
4. Did the Red Bulls peak in 2014 or 2015?
This is the fundamental question which has led to the disconnect between why supporters are so angry, and why Curtis may have done what he did.
Supporters, and many pundits, feel the upward trajectory of the Red Bulls was nowhere near finishing and despite the retirement of Thierry Henry, there were good times ahead of the New York Red Bulls. We won our first trophy ever in 2013 and followed it up with a team that stormed into the playoffs and came within one more goal of making its second MLS Cup Final. Mike Petke's 4-2-3-1 looked very solid and a winning combination was going on in Harrison.
What Curtis may have seen told a different story. The Red Bulls are one of the, if not the, wealthiest club in MLS, and according to commissioner Don Garber "spend more than any other club." For a club who spends so much, they have only one MLS Cup appearance to date, and struggle to field a good reserve squad.
In addition, the Red Bulls have an excellent academy. They rank very high in the country, and three out of the past five years have won their NPSL division, and in 2014 they won the entire league!
Unfortunately, the link between the Red Bulls academy and the MLS squad isn't entirely as secure as it could be. There will always be the traffic cones incident, but the academy is not where it could be for the talent it produces. It regularly lets guys like Armando Moreno and Dan Metzger get away.
The Red Bulls are one of three teams without a USL Pro affiliate. MLS is hopefully announcing something later this month to correct this, but only one player this year was loaned to USL Pro: Ian Christianson. The Red Bulls loaned Connor Lade to the New York Cosmos, but neither played much on their loan assignment.
Curtis' role in MLS could aid with the youth development in the Red Bulls. He should have the requisite knowledge to run a USL Pro team, because let's face it we can afford our own we don't need to piggy back with a current team.
This is a fantastic development given our new coach's (weird isn't it?) philosophy: more youth. See, our coach and new Sporting Director are already in line with one another.
Another possibility to consider is that Mike Petke was the beneficiary of some good advice and good luck from those around him. Robin Fraser his veteran assistant was credited in helping him with tactical advice. Also, Petke's 2014 Red Bulls were very close to missing the playoffs, and it could be said that they peaked right when it mattered to make an honest to god run at MLS Cup. Fans would say this was something to build on, but the signs show that the Red Bulls were not fully equipped to continue in this landscape where the Galaxy/Sounders/Sporting Kansas City's are looking like they are dominating MLS 3.0.
5. We may not realize it but the Red Bulls may need a full overhaul.
If the owners do realize this is the case it casts a different light on Curtis' moves. Red Bulls fans may have wished that Petke stay in Curtis' first year to see what the coach could have done given the circumstances, but at the same time that could lead to wasting a year before hitting the hard reset button. The Red Bulls are in serious needs of overall development, which takes time. Why experiment one year and delay what Curtis feels is inevitable?
Obviously, the firing was not done in the best manner. It happened out of the blue, and Petke is the first manager in a long time that fans truly connected with. Casting him aside is creates a big rift that...
6. Without the fans trust could ruin the patience that is necessary to further develop the club.
There is a saying "you can't do a rebuild in New York." It speaks to fans lack of patience mostly, but it also shows that you need to be a winner to stay relevant in NYC or someone else will. Without perceived gains, which in this case will be hard to see right away, the fans could start to stay home causing the owners to rethink Curtis' 300 page plan for a quick fix that could set things back even more.
Currently the Red Bulls don't have a bad squad, but they don't have an elite squad. They have something to build on, and I hope Curtis recognizes this. I hope he realizes he doesn't need to tear it ALL down to achieve the long term goals he seeks out of the Red Bulls.
So what's next?
There are a lot of positives out of all this, I promise. Its always refreshing to hear a club say they are embracing analytics. It's a cliche at this point in most North American sports, but you don't hear it much in Major League Soccer. One of the major clubs to embrace them this season was the New England Revolution. In the offseason the Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC have all said they want to embrace them in their front office. Analytics could be the new competitive balance and I'm glad the Red Bulls care.
There is something coming with USL Pro, I just want to reiterate that. It excites me.
Signs from today point there is an overhaul coming with the Red Bull's youth system and a youth movement can do good things for a club. Hopefully we can keep tapping the best academy in the country and use that to our advantage more than the rest of MLS.
We need to clear up the Tim Cahill situation. Is he staying or is he going? Because the Red Bulls right now are looking at Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore. If Cahill is gone, how cool would it be to go all in and get both? May accelerate things a little bit.
Finally, it is important for Curtis to have a sort of Detente with season ticket holders. It does not seem like today was a fun day to be a Red Bulls sales associate. There is an opportunity here to show that the club still cares about its relationship with its fans and is showing its willing to talk about some of its plans for the future.
This club is not doomed and Ali Curtis may very will still be right for the job. MLS is changing. Maybe the Red Bulls need to change with it. I'm going to stay patient because we've got no other choice but to have faith in the club we love.
Come on you Red Bulls!