We're into the final month of preseason (ongoing, seemingly ill-fated CBA negotiations notwithstanding), which appears a reasonable moment to take stock.
The New York Red Bulls are well into an overhaul of their entire first team, playing style and identity that might be interpreted as just about the most extreme possible reaction to the retirement of Thierry Henry. At the forefront of that effort is sporting director Ali Curtis, a man with a talent for letting his actions speak more loudly than his words (largely because his words tend to be rather flimsy vehicles for coherent thought).
We don't know a great deal about him, since he's only been part of the club since late December, but from what we are able to judge, he is a ruthlessly clear-thinking man ("Petke? Out!") trapped in the corporeal manifestation of the dreariest PowerPoint presentation anyone ever endured (300-page business plan...dynamism...up-tempo...synergy...burble, burble...yawn...snooze).
RBNY fandom is a many-splendored thing, but Curtis's combination of forthright action and incoherent quasi-corporate gibberish does not appear to have won him many supporters within the fan base.
Which is why it is time to set the record straight. Yes, Ali Curtis trashed the most successful coaching team this club has ever known. Yes, he brought in a coach whose first major work on the roster was to create a big hole on the left side of midfield in exchange for two central midfielders: the one position the team seemed to have covered. Yes, he seems to have a preference for long severance negotiations that don't really do anyone much good (Tim Cahill was finally allowed to leave RBNY...for nothing; whatever is going on with Armando is happening slowly and without any great sense of how keeping a guy on the roster you apparently don't want in the squad is of any benefit to the club).
But consider the positive moves Curtis has made - positive in the sense they are about building a team rather than tearing one apart - and reflect on what they reveal about RBNY's sporting director. This observer is some distance from being among Mr. Curtis's fans, but one cannot argue with evidence - and the evidence suggests to me that Ali Curtis is a stone-cold genius.
Exhibit A: picking up Leo Stoltz in the Super Draft. Initially, as close observers of the draft noted as soon as the selection was made, it appeared a risky move:
RBNY takes UCLA midfielder Leo Stolz. He is not here, and may never be.— The Brotherly Game (@BrotherlyGame) January 15, 2015
New York Red Bulls take Leo Stolz of UCLA. Great pick - if they can sign him to a deal. #RBNY— Franco Panizo (@FrancoPanizo) January 15, 2015
A couple of days later, RBNY removed all doubt about the transfer: Stolz was under contract.
The full story, as summarized by Ives Galarcep at Goal.com, was that Stolz had been regarded a prospect unwilling or unlikely to consent to play in MLS. A top-tier pick in many mock drafts was ignored by teams confident he was too risky a selection to chase in the first-round. Even when RBNY announced his selection - with the 18th pick of the draft - it wasn't clear whether the club was simply taking the chance no one else in the league was willing to take. As it turned out, there had been discussion between player and team before the draft: Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch knew Stolz would sign and play for RBNY, even if the rest of the league did not.
Sure, the Red Bulls' second pick of the draft, Stefano Bonomo, never made it in to camp. His absence has to count as a wasted selection. But snatching a guy who has an award that says he was the best male player in college soccer in 2014 with the 18th pick of the draft, and giving up absolutely nothing to do so because no one thought he was available, arguably counts as a bigger step forward than the step back of losing out on a long-shot back-up forward option. Indeed, it wouldn't be surprising to learn MLS sent Bonomo to Europe as a way of punishing RBNY for its impertinence.
Exhibit B is the trade for back-up 'keeper Kyle Reynish.
The Red Bulls loaned Ryan Meara to NYCFC in mid-December, as part of an extraordinarily well-executed trade that ostensibly allowed the blue team to borrow Meara for a season while RBNY got free use of one of Jason Kreis's picks in the Expansion Draft. Sal Zizzo landed in Harrison as a permanent signing; Meara can be yanked back from Yankee Stadium at the end of 2015. Curtis gets no credit for that deal because he wasn't officially in charge when it happened. It does, however, bear the hallmark of his best work: it is counter-intuitively one-sided.
Meara needed a place to play regularly, or at least have a fair shot at a starting role. His injury problems and Luis Robles's ceaseless reliability had combined to see his career falter. He deserved a chance at a fresh start. At the same time, his value can be presumed to be low - since no one has seen him play regularly since 2012 - and one can understand RBNY being reluctant to give away a promising 'keeper for no better reason than he needed 18 months to rehab a serious hip problem.
Loaning him out to another MLS team that would give him a reasonable chance to win a starting spot would have been a good solution. Loaning him out and getting to pick over NYCFC's Expansion Draft bounty for a starting-caliber addition to the squad should have been RBNY's deal/steal of the off-season. As it stands, it is a footnote to the relentless ability of Ali Curtis to make trades that appear to completely ignore traditional expectations of mutual benefit or fairness.
Meara's absence presented RBNY with a minor problem: it needed another 'keeper. More specifically, it needed a back-up who might plausibly fill Robles's gloves were he to be injured or out of form, since Homegrown prospect Santiago Castano isn't necessarily ready for that role.
At the same time, the back-up needed to be one comfortable with a supporting role, because Robles has started every league game of the past two seasons and will presumably continue to be the starting 'keeper for as long as he maintains form and fitness. Also, the new back-up needed to be a guy who wouldn't upset the balance of the club's efforts to manage its salary cap. Finally, since this might just be a stop-gap solution until Meara returns, the team could be presumed to prefer to find a way not to surrender too much in exchange for a 'keeper who might only be around for one season.
Kyle Reynish is almost the perfect fit: he was NASL's Golden Glove winner in 2013, the year he won that league's Fall Championship and Soccer Bowl as the starting 'keeper for New York Cosmos; prior to that, he was a perma-reserve at Real Salt Lake, where Nick Rimando was the undisputed starter for all five seasons Reynish was on the roster; in Chicago, Reynish settled into another full-time back-up role, since the Fire is fully invested in developing Sean Johnson into one of the next great American goalkeepers. In 2014, his guaranteed salary was around $74,000 - about $5,000 more than Meara was said to be earning last year.
In exchange for this ideal solution to a very specific problem, the New York Red Bulls gave the Fire "their third round pick in the 2016 MLS Super Draft". Not much of a sacrifice at all; especially since RBNY traded its third round pick in the 2016 MLS Super Draft to Toronto FC in exchange for Bobby Convey back in 2013.
At least, that is Once A Metro's suspicion. A suspicion apparently confirmed by the fact MLS has since declared the draft pick Chicago acquired for Reynish came from Vancouver Whitecaps. And by "declared", we mean "quietly inserted a line on its website to address the apparent oversight without further explanation".
If there is news of RBNY trading something to Vancouver for a third round draft pick in 2016, please do let us know. (And a tip of the hat to commenter xcdudesquad for putting OaM on to MLS's latest move to shut the door of the stable from which RBNY's 2016 third round draft pick bolted.)
Finally, we come to Exhibit C: the recent trade that sent Ambroise Oyongo and Eric Alexander to Montreal Impact in exchange for Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan.
To me, that was and will remain a bad trade because it gave up two things RBNY knew it had - a starting left winger and one half of a proven central midfield partnership - for two good central midfielders who may or may not work out.
But the trade looks a lot like a coach's selection: Jesse Marsch knows both Felipe and Kljestan. Marsch will be proven right or wrong once the team is up and running and we can see whether it is capable of regularly winning games. Curtis must be judged on what he gave up to secure these targets for his coach.
Once the decision was made to go after not just one but two central midfielders, one can understand (if not endorse) the decision to let Alexander go: the roster is overcrowded with CMs at the moment. Oyongo seemed a less obvious decision: he's young, versatile, and was the only proven left-sided attacking midfielder on the roster. So trading him created a new area of weakness for a team already scrambling to cover issues with a defense that is being remodeled and a very thin forward corps. Oyongo is also more conventionally regarded as a full back, and so RBNY gave up depth on both sides of the back four (he can play right back, as he has done for his country, as well as left) with one trade.
And then the other shoe dropped on the Oyongo trade. We quickly learned his agent was furious that his player had been flipped out to Montreal without consultation; indeed, it was suggested RBNY had promised it wanted Oyongo, thereby securing his signature on a contract and costing the player options in Europe he turned down in favor of another year in New York.
RBNY spoke of uncertainty about Oyongo's future - he had allegedly been reluctant to commit to any longer-term deal with the club. The expectation that a rising star of a rebuilding Cameroon national team might swiftly quit MLS was reflected in the fact Curtis managed to work in a majority share of any future transfer to the details of the trade with Montreal.
And now we have the news (probably inspired by the involuntary exile to Montreal) that Oyongo's contract with MLS - the one traded by RBNY - might not be valid at all. Currently, the player is suspended without pay for breaching a contract his representatives are reportedly arguing isn't worth a damn. We don't have much detail, nor do we know if Curtis had any idea whatsoever that this was a possible wrinkle in Oyongo's dealings with MLS, but it doesn't much matter: however you slice the Oyongo deal, Curtis looks good.
If he knew there could be a problem with the contract between MLS and the player, he did well to make it someone else's problem; if he merely suspected he wouldn't be able to outmaneuver Oyongo's agent in a negotiation later in the year when the European summer transfer window opened and bigger clubs came hunting for prospects, he did well to make it someone else's problem; and if he just callously flipped out a player without warning having made a false promise to get a signature on a contract he could trade for players he wanted more, that is reprehensible behavior but also the work of a cold-hearted genius.
We don't know how the Oyongo deal will shake out, but it seems extremely unlikely it will result in Felipe or Kljestan being sent back to Montreal (or Anderlecht, since RBNY got the opportunity to sign Sacha from L'Impact, not the actual player). And as long as those players remain in the squad, Curtis has got what RBNY wanted out of the deal. A lost cut of a not-at-all-inevitable big transfer fee doesn't really cost the Red Bulls anything. If MLS extracts some sort of compensation payment out of RBNY, it is hard to imagine it being so punitive as to seriously harm the team. And if Oyongo goes on to play for Montreal - well, that is what Curtis was willing to give up to get his men.
Ali Curtis hasn't been in his job for two months yet, and he's already sneakily drafted a player most thought wasn't available, traded a draft pick his team didn't have, and swapped a potential contract headache for that attacking midfielder his coach was lusting after plus the guy he's sincerely hoping turns out to be the centerpiece of the Red Bulls' next few years.
It is not necessary for any Red Bulls fan to like Ali Curtis. If anyone reading this is currently negotiating with RBNY's sporting director, you may want to reconsider the offer: it's probably not as good as you think. But it may be time to (grudgingly) advance him a little respect. He seems to be good at getting what he wants. And when what he wants is something more positive than the total destruction of the team that preceded his arrival, his stone-hearted approach to deal-making may prove to be to RBNY's benefit.