If you've read just about the only story written about the New York Red Bulls this season, then you know the standard line about the club in 2015. If you have somehow managed to avoid the chorus, here is the narrative provided by the conventional wisdom on RBNY this year: Ali Curtis appointed; Mike Petke sacked; 300-page plan; Jesse Marsch; "uptempo"; play the kids; the team is the star; Red Bulls revolutionized by new, visionary leadership; the club is now chasing silverware and a force to be reckoned with in MLS just nine months or so after it appeared to be singularly clueless and rudderless, even by its own tragi-comic standards.
It's a good story, which presumably is why it persists despite giving every appearance of not being entirely true.
The visionary leadership behind RBNY in 2015 looks a lot like Ralf Rangnick - not Ali Curtis or Jesse Marsch. And the revolution being enacted by the New York Red Bulls this year bears striking resemblance to that initiated by Red Bulls Salzburg and Leipzig back in 2012. We call the strategy RalfBall, and it increasingly looks like a careful plan to build, in effect, a global soccer club. Not a group of branded satellites per City Financial Group, or a network of feeder teams as favored by many of the soccer world's superclubs, but a fully-integrated club, playing the same style of football, following the same team-building strategy, and developing players and coaches all schooled in the same philosophy.
That adjustment to the narrative surrounding RBNY this season does not in any way diminish the coaching acumen of Jesse Marsch, or make the trades and infrastructure adjustments executed by Ali Curtis any less laudable. It just suggests those men did not invent the current Red Bull strategy.
If anything it might make their achievements to date even more worthy of credit. The prevailing orthodoxy would like you believe Papa Red Bull was trawling around for a way to win in MLS and happened across Ali Curtis and his carefully constructed three-ring binder of plan. Papa took a punt on the MLS exec, and the rest is a nine-month history of quick success.
The RalfBall hypothesis suggests Curtis - and subsequently Marsch - got tapped by Papa to win in MLS and execute the US module of a plan for global integration of all Red Bull soccer clubs that was cooked up in Germany. There is a ready-made narrative in MLS circles for those foolhardy enough to try to impose European solutions on the American league. And, so far, Curtis and Marsch have kept it bay - so much so, the soccer media does not appear interested in looking at the bigger picture affecting RBNY. If it ain't broke, don't mention it, apparently.
Still, until or unless RBNY comes up with some convincing alternative explanation for its uncanny resemblance to Red Bull soccer's other major clubs (and maybe even RB Brazil, which we neglect mostly because it's tough to get information about it), when we're looking for clues as to what direction the club may take next, or how it is performing, we should be looking to Leipzig and Salzburg, not Salt Lake, Kansas City, LA or Seattle.
And when you start looking to Leipzig and Salzburg for information to support or counter the RalfBall hypothesis , you can find some unexpected parallels. One example, spotted by Patrick Glodkowski: a similar approach to set pieces (indeed, a facsimile of the Salzburg routine highlighted in that piece featured in RBNY's match against New England about a week later - though it was not executed as successfully).
Another example was spotted by Juan Mesa:
We looked into it, Juan - and whaddya know? Here's a video of RB Salzburg players celebrating in front of their fans back in 2011 (fast forward to 1:24):
That would make the tradition in Salzburg one that predates RalfBall (which gets its name from Ralf Rangnick, who arrived at Red Bull soccer in 2012). But it is also a tradition that has surived. Here is the 2014 edition of RB Salzburg celebrating a win over Rapid Wien (fast forward to 9:45):
RBNY players have certainly celebrated wins in front of the South Ward or traveling fans in the past. The difference this season is the frequency and consistency of the celebration. This year has seen the players offer a concerted commitment to celebrating each and every home win (and a few on the road) in front of the South Ward by joining hands and raising their arms to salute the supporters in a gesture of appreciation and the shared delight of victory (0:20 in the video below):
Coincidence? It could be for sure. It's not an uncommon sight in soccer in general and Germany in particular (Austria being not far - geographically or culturally - from Germany). Here are Arminia Bielefeld supporters cheering a similar salute from their team (around the 0:40 mark):
Luis Robles, a senior figure on the RBNY roster, spent five years playing in Germany. Ibrahim Sekagya, now assistant coach for NYRB II, played for RB Salzburg for many years. And, of course, the concept is not unknown within MLS or the New York Red Bulls. Here are the 2014 Seattle Sounders doing the same thing:
The difference between this season and the recent past at Red Bull Arena is the commitment of the whole team to this post-match salute to supporters. The idea could have come from many places in the dressing room. It may even have come from Ali Curtis's three-ring binder.
But it's also a common feature of RB soccer celebrations in Europe. The Leipzig variation - at least when it pops up on YouTube - seems to be "sit, listen, jump around":
That's a variation that has also been favored by Borussia Dortmund's players:
So there's nothing uniquely Red Bull about the idea of celebrating a win with supporters, or even celebrating in the particular style adopted by RBNY this season.
But it is interesting that at least three RB clubs are in the habit of making time to share the good times with their fans and one of them (RBNY) just happens to have got behind the habit at the same time that it started to turn itself into the MLS version of Papa's gegenpressing dream teams.
Ultimately, the most engaging aspect of following a soccer club for most people is watching that club on the field. Global strategies, attendance figures, tactical identities, player development: all of the big picture stuff is essentially ancillary to the simple pleasure of watching a team kick a ball around for 90 minutes and hoping it wins. And then celebrating the win if it comes.
It would seem Papa Red Bull has institutionalized the acknowledgement of supporter enthusiasm - or, at the very least, has not discouraged players from taking time out from their post-match routines to spend some time in front of the fans. It would seem RalfBall is about caring.