clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Don't listen to the rumors about the New York Red Bulls being sold

Oh, look: we're talking about RBNY being sold again.

Charles Coates/Getty Images

Recently, the New York Red Bulls have sparked one of those "beat the dead horse" rumors attached to the team, which is that Red Bull is looking at a divestiture of its MLS franchise. Alam Khan of Yahoo News has reported that a Qatari investor is looking into MLS, and that RBNY is a prime target. Without disputing anyone's reporting, I want to work the angle articulated by Brian Lewis, in saying that the New York Red Bulls are not for sale. It does not make sense the energy drink company would want to sell. Let us delve into why.

The most prominent reason is that it is increasingly clear Red Bull is looking to develop a global soccer empire, as shown by the consolidation of its major teams - RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg, RB New York, and RB Brasil - under one overarching playing style, transfer policy, and shared scouting and development resources. These teams have been hand selected from Salzburg, including (we can assume) input from Dietrich Mateschitz, to create a Red Bull soccer consortium. The Austrian firm has spent millions on infrastructure development across all the clubs - that includes stadiums and training facilities - and appears to have finally settled on a coherent, global plan that probably doesn't stop with getting RB Leipzig into Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily preclude Red Bull from selling RBNY if the right price is offered. MLS is something of an outlier: its structure makes it a little more difficult to simply integrate alongside clubs working within the traditional soccer systems in place elsewhere in the world. But Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch seem to have been hired in the hope they could find a way to bring RBNY closer to the RB global system, and they have won the league at the first time of asking. On the soccer side, the team is closer to Austria in philosophy and style than ever before. If RB sells now, it's selling a pretty good facsimile of its Salzburg and Leipzig teams, and weakening a global soccer footprint that has only recently taken shape.

Also, with particular regard to RBNY, Once A Metro has learned it is relatively commonplace for part of the Front Office to coordinate with Red Bull North America in Santa Monica (corporate HQ in the USA), and Salzburg (the location of Red Bull's global corporate headquarters) in order to see how the team is progressing financially and operationally, and what can be done to enhance efficiency. Although the numbers are not readily available (let us face it, synergies are bulls$&^ anyway), it can be understood that this shows a serious desire to maintain relations with the team. More importantly, it perhaps speaks to a long-term interest in having RBNY be part of the overall corporate structure of Red Bull.

Since being bought in 2006, the New York flavor of Red Bull soccer has not necessarily achieved what it was supposed to. Sure, two Supporters' Shields have now arrived in three years. And, aside from teams that never won it, everyone has praised RBNY for accomplishing such a task; especially after such a hectic offseason, with many controversial decisions - most notably, the decision to accelerate the fragmentation of the team that won the 2013 Shield, and start anew.

This Shield has been won in a different way from the last one, despite the presence of key players who were on the 2013 roster. When Andy Roxburgh joined RBNY, he said he was told to make the club more professional and "win something". Winning now, was a priority with a roster carrying superstars Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. Mike Petke never seemed to be allowed any other objective but to win, and did not seem to get great credit (beyond keeping his job for 2014) for winning the Shield. The players he inherited and the moves made subsequently to support him, were largely selected to win a trophy immediately. And that seemed a direct continuation of the three-year rollercoaster we rode with Erik Soler and Hans Backe, who basically built three different squads (mostly around Henry) to try to win MLS Cup in three slightly different ways.

Curtis and Marsch want to win now. This cannot be questioned. And they have put together a squad that has already put a trophy on the shelf. But the talk has always been of a longer-term vision: of getting off the annual cycle of loading up the roster with contracts primed to explode at the end of the year, precipitating another overhaul of the squad in the off-season (even Roxy's famous "continuity" saw significant year-to-year player turnover). We have been told there is a five-to-ten year plan. We have been told the team is being built to compete every year - which it has done pretty much since 2010, but the implication is that this time the vision is for a smoother ride from season to season.

Throughout the year, management has consistently said it wants to win every trophy the team had a shot at - and the truth of that has been shown by picking strong squads for US Open Cup, and refusing to balk at the regular season run-in but instead holding to a pretty reliable, winning lineup in search of the Shield, rather than resting players for the upcoming playoffs.

But there is also now clearly a system in place that is intended to withstand whatever highs and lows lie ahead. MLS almost mandates a lot of off-season trading to manage salary cap concerns, but the acquisitions the team makes seem incredibly well thought out. The salaries expended are rather conservative (though that ultimately does not matter for non-DP players, since the league covers that bill), with an emphasis on bringing in players whose best years are likely ahead of them.

Where bigger names or salaries have been acquired - Shaun Wright-Phillips say; or, arguably, Ronald Zubar - they seem to function as shorter-term cover for areas where the team might need that experience. But they do not define the team: SWP hasn't had a starting spot handed to him, nor has anyone ahead of him lost form - so he is a bench player. Zubar was injured early in the year, and Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle have stepped ahead of him to form the starting center back pairing. Zubar must wait for a new opportunity to win a starting role.

This off-season, we can expect to see some players leave the team we would prefer to see stick around. Or not. Curtis has demonstrated he'll trade seemingly prime assets (Ambroise Oyongo) if he senses he won't get a better chance to get value for them. And he is also an adept MLS salary cap manager. RBNY may get the best of both worlds: if there is way to keep the team together, Curtis is one of the few who might be able to do that; if there is not, he is unemotional in the transfer market, and that is what is needed to, for example, get Sacha Kljestan in exchange for a player you suspected might be leaving MLS for free in a year's time (best of luck if you do make it over to Europe, Ambroise). What once looked like asset-stripping and running the team on a shoestring now looks like a buy-low-sell-high transfer policy much like the one in place at RBs Leipzig and Salzburg. And that is about a sustainable future, not a short-term budget dump to maximize profit on a sale.

The coaching quality in Jesse Marsch and Denis Hamlett seems to be largely unparalleled this season, and of course they have done wonders to take whatever instructions were handed to them and fashion a squad that was somewhat hastily put together (it will be interesting to see how this off-season, which Curtis has had a full year to plan for, differs from the last) into a Shield winner. As with Mike Petke and Robin Fraser, Marsch and Hamlett deserve bountiful credit for taking what could easily have been a hospital pass, pivoting out of trouble, and moving from a position of weakness to the top of the league. Lucky break for a pairing installed to mind the store while Papa seeks a willing buyer? Maybe.

But all the talk of integrated coaching plans, regular consultation with the RB soccer brains trust in Austria and Germany, and the unwavering commitment to a tactical style - whether the team was winning or losing (and there were some wobbles throughout the year) - suggests they are expecting to be doing this job for at least as long as it takes for a bigger club (or national team?) to notice they're pretty good at this coaching stuff.

Lastly, the Front Office has done amazing business deals this season in terms of sponsorships, marketing programs, and additional events not related to the team. Again, that can be interpreted as getting RBNY ready to split from the Red Bull family by showing new investors it is a strong commercial entity without the backing of the beverage billions. But, unless the sponsors have been notified of Red Bull's intentions, it isn't the smartest way to run a business: aggressively courting new commercial partners just to abandon them as soon as possible won't win Red Bull a lot of friends. Alternatively, and more in keeping with what seems to be happening everywhere else in the organization, these are stabilizing deals that shore up RBNY's financial position by creating revenue streams independent of Papa's effervescent income.

Sure, there is room for improvement. However, don't confuse smart, independent business moves with hints of divestiture. Red Bull GmbH is not killing RBNY, it is making it stronger: merely pushing the MLS franchise to become more operationally efficient on its own, and to be able to stand independently, with occasional assistance and coordination with Salzburg. Nothing on Red Bull's side indicates a sale is imminent - though one can certainly see how RBNY is becoming steadily more attractive to investors. But speculation around the matter is somewhat farcical considering the massive investment in the team, which does not seem close to ending.