"I miss the atmosphere of Red Bull on a big night," says Andy Roxburgh, Technical Director for the Asian Football Confederation, reminiscing about his time as Sporting Director for the New York Red Bulls.
"Some of those days...that night that we beat Chicago when we won the Supporters' Shield at home - that was just something you'd find anywhere in Europe. I must be honest: I miss that."
Roxburgh's tenure at RBNY - the 2013 and 2014 MLS seasons - is probably best remembered by fans for the team's on-field successes: last year's run to the Eastern Conference playoff final and the 2013 Supporters' Shield, the club's first trophy. But he also derives satisfaction from seeing the continuation of policies and projects he put in place to reshape the organization, bring the academy closer to the first team, maximize the utility of the club's state-of-the-art training facility in Hanover, New Jersey, and bring Red Bull soccer into Manhattan in the form of its USL team playing competitive fixtures on the island.
He watches RBNY from a distance these days. The AFC is headquartered in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur. The 71-year-old has a busy schedule that includes plenty of travel back to Europe, where he served as UEFA's first technical director from 1994 until 2012. He generously agreed to share news of his current position and memories of his time in New York in a phone interview with Once A Metro.
Roxburgh took on his role with the AFC in March, effectively reprising the work he had done for almost 20 years for UEFA.
"When you're a technical director [the task] is winning the next five to ten years and that's what you're doing: you're trying to help the national associations to be successful so they actually develop the game in their territories and their teams become successful," he said of his present duties.
"Also [we are] doing things like a grassroots chapter, these things are all called endorsement programs that you work with the national associations. We set standards and the guidelines and evaluate them and so on. We need to work on the youth level as well and one of the major spin-offs to all of this is to increase the amount of exchange between technicians."
Standards for coaching licences and conferences to bring national federation coaches together are an important part of Roxburgh's work for AFC. As is continuity: ensuring that leadership is in place to carry forward the technical development structures of the Asian Football Confederation long after his active involvement is over.
The idea of building structures and systems that will support future growth and development played a big part in his work at RBNY also, it would seem. One senses that he measures success from seeing that growth and development reflected in the careers of players and staff, as well as the enthusiasm of crowd on match days. What he misses most, he says, are people: former colleagues and the fans.
He is still in close contact with the club through some of those he worked with during two years in which he was tasked with two primary objectives: improve the overall professionalism of the organization and try to win something.
"I think most people would definitely agree, and it's not solely because of me [but] because of the work of a lot of people, [the club] is far more professional. The new training facility completely transformed, and the stadium of course is magnificent," he says.
He made the academy a priority as soon as he came to the club, and fought hard to integrate it deeper with the professional team. Roxburgh said that the first order of business for him was to make the new training ground the home of the academy.
"When I came there I was appalled, they didn't know from one day to the next where they would be training, and so this was another advantage of the new training facility," he said.
"It was built only for the first team but almost within the blink of an eye I made sure we also got youth training facilities and the new locker rooms were built for them. It's their home now too."
The work has paid dividends. The academy is ranked in the top 2 in the country at all levels, and has seen players like Matt Miazga and Sean Davis integrated into the first team. Ensuring there were first team spots for academy signings, was part of a strategy Roxburgh championed to integrates the entire club. For him, a regular flow of homegrown players into the first team was a critical part of developing RBNY's identity: "They are people that the fans can immediately identify," he said.
"You will always need to trade and you will always need to buy in players, but the heart of the soul comes from your own development process."
To that end, he worked hard to sign Miazga. Roxburgh detailed how he sat down with Miazga’s parents to plead for the young player to sign for the Red Bulls instead of taking offers from clubs in the Bundesliga or from the NCAA.
With Miazga playing a key role with the United States in the 2015 U-20 World Cup, Roxburgh can perhaps take comfort from the fact his persistence has brought benefit to club, country and player. He rates the center back's prospects very highly.
"[Matt] was an example of someone who looked good in on first impression, and then the more you saw him the more you started to appreciate who he was. He can not only play, but he has all the attributes," Roxburgh said of the RBNY homegrown signing.
"I hope that at some point down the line people will recognize him as a top professional."
Beyond the academy, Roxburgh worked to bring NYRB II, the Red Bulls’ USL team, into existence. While the team didn’t launch until after he had left his position at the club, discussions were ongoing during his time in Harrison. And those discussions clearly reached a fairly detailed level of planning: the idea that NYRB II would split time between Red Bull Arena and Columbia University during its first season was developed under Roxburgh:
"As you know one of the things we should definitely do is definitely try to play in our backyard, and I'm sure you know the arrangement we made before I left was that they would be playing at [Columbia] and they would also play some of the games as doubleheaders at Red Bull Arena."
Throughout his time at RBNY, he said he received "all the support, all the backing that was necessary" from Austria: "Mr. Mateschitz what he's done there with his investment and the New York Red Bulls have been fantastic."
But Roxburgh acknowledged there were still issues within the league and the organization that could use further attention. He found the salary cap restrictive: "In France or Germany or someplace, you can go to the owner and say 'Can I get a couple of million to buy a player,' [you can't do that in MLS]," he said.
Nonetheless, he revealed he coveted a third Designated Player, and one high-profile candidate in particular: "We thought about it; there was a lot of flying around," he said of the hunt for a third DP.
"There is another thing you know when you've got this discovery list, which is a novelty I must be honest. I found that to be extremely novel: that you could name a lot of players. And one of the players that I named right up front, that I wanted to have very up front, was Xavi.
"I guess we never [were able] to pin down somebody what we needed at that time, that was the trouble. We couldn't pin down somebody that would be available at the right price."
Ultimately, the chase was defeated by the league's payroll restrictions: clearly the primary thing, but not the only thing, Roxburgh does not miss about MLS.
"The problem in the U.S. is because of the salary cap. Also, I don't particularly miss all the geographical travel to away matches, and I was never a great fan of playing on artificial soccer fields."
Given his close interest in the academy system, it is perhaps unsurprising that the other issue he found troubling at RBNY was the lack of compensation for youth players that leave the club.
"[We had this player] with us for five years, and the next day he suddenly signed for a club in Europe you know and his family wrote and said "Thank you very much." Now that was very nice of them but it wasn't enough, this is just a nonsense."
"If a club is going to invest heavily in a youth academy and for the fans' sake and the club's sake, for the owner's sake - there has to be some compensation."
He added this is a matter MLS and the United States Soccer Federation have discussed before, but he was unsure of the progress the two bodies have made since he left his role at RBNY.
Overall, however, Roxburgh believes the club is in a healthy position. He supports the new hires that caused such controversy in the off-season:
"I think they made a wise move in bringing in Ali Curtis because I must admit it was quite negative [the reaction], to me as an outsider." He cites Curtis's experience with "the MLS rules, the salary cap, the traveling" as strengths, noting "all these things were quite complicated for someone like me."
He also has respect for the new head coach, perhaps because he once contemplated hiring him:
"In the case of Jesse Marsch, I mean he's a good guy. I actually interviewed him believe it or not: two years ago, when we were looking for an assistant."
Roxburgh sees Curtis and Marsch dealing with a different challenge to the one he faced in his time at RBNY. With regard to style of play - and given his instruction to "try to win something" - the 2013 and 2014 seasons were "pragmatic", as the Red Bulls needed to fit a style to the strengths of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. Now that the stars are gone, the task is to "if you like, start again in terms of bringing in players to suit a system" - a system that moves RBNY closer in playing style to its sister clubs in Austria and Leipzig.
To that end, Roxburgh said the team is in good hands, although he wishes that the head coach he hired, Mike Petke, would get back in the game.
"I think that Mike did a really good job in the two years he was a head coach," he said unprompted.
"Of course you know he continues to be a legend as a player. And he was a very brave boy to take on, when I asked him to take on, the job of the head coach.
"He had no experience, he had no background but, because it was Red Bull, he did it. He really developed a lot in the two years and all I can say is that I just wish Mike all the best - I gather he is doing some TV things and things like that - and I hope he'll come back into the game in a technical capacity at some point."
Genial to a fault, the current Technical Director of the Asian Football Confederation, first-ever Technical Director of UEFA, the first head coach of Scotland to get the national team to a European Championship finals tournament, and the sporting director of the first RBNY team to win a major trophy consented to answer one particularly sensitive question from Once A Metro: what exactly was up with that Lady Gaga jacket he gave to Lloyd Sam during the 2014 season?
He answered at length and in detail:
"So what happened was Lloyd is a character. And one of the things: he's not only a great player, he's a character, and he is always very well dressed. Because at my age everybody looks 20, but anyway - so he was always looking trendy and he had been talking about fashion one of the days. And it just so happened that night, me and my woman, we used to go this place called Joanne's, and it's near the park, near Central Park.
"So we went there the evening after we had been talking to Lloyd and he had been talking about fashion, and so they had these jackets with Lady Gaga across the back. So I couldn't resist as a joke to take one of these jackets. And the next day I gave it to Lloyd and said you can give that to the girlfriend!
Photo courtesy of Michael Lewis, Big Apple Soccer
So in that moment, Lloyd and the girlfriend had parted, so Lloyd simply hung it up as a kind of lucky charm in his locker. And the strange thing was from the moment he put it there - if i recall correctly this was in the August or something like that - and from that moment [we went on a winning streak] and this became our standing joke with Lloyd: that this was a lucky charm. This was the background to it, this was all tongue and cheek and all because Lloyd was so trendy."
There you have it: the Lady Gaga jacket was purchased at Joanne’s Trattoria near Central Park West, and Sam just hung it up in his locker. Soon after, the Red Bulls went on a prolonged winning streak, creating the jacket’s claim to fame.
For his contribution to the good times of seasons past, present and future, and his time for this interview, OaM thanks Andy Roxburgh and wishes him all the best in his current endeavors.