The New York Red Bulls have informed season ticket holders that there will be a Town Hall meeting on Wednesday, September 2, at Red Bull Arena. The event is expected to start at 7:30 pm. Those in attendance will be met by Sporting Director Ali Curtis, Head Coach Jesse Marsch, General Manager Marc de Grandpre, and first team captain Dax McCarty - all available to answer questions in an open, public forum (ish - last time around, there was a clumsy effort to insist the entire event was "off the record"'; as per the prior gathering, those in attendance will be the first 200 season ticket holders to RSVP).
There will be many articles written before and after this occasion comparing this Town Hall to the last one: a famously bad-tempered clash between justly irate supporters (not all in attendance by any means, but certainly the most audible) and four quite uncomfortable men - Curtis, Marsch, de Grandpre, and an heroic Luis Robles, stepping in to represent the players.
In itself, it is not remarkable that many fans were upset last time and most won't be this time. It is the nature of a healthy fan base to care about the activities of the team it supports. A fan base that is not apathetic, deluded or otherwise incapable of critical thinking will occasionally have cause to be saddened or baffled, even angered, when its favorite club does something dumb. Abruptly firing the most successful coach your team has ever had when results and achievements have been generally positive is dumb. This is not a controversial statement. Understandably, many fans weren't happy at the last Town Hall.
Similarly uncontroversial: when your team has the longest active unbeaten streak in the league (as of now - this may not be true by the time September 2 rolls around), is playing mostly attractive and ambitious soccer, has acquired (Kemar Lawrence) or developed (Matt Miazga) elite young talent, and also skilled players in their prime (Gonzalo Veron; Sacha Kljestan) and ageing international-class support (Shaun Wright-Phillips) - you are likely quite happy with how things are going.
This is the nature of being a fan: you need a short memory, or at least to be able to balance two contradictory ideas (my club has no loyalty to its legends or respect for their achievements vs. my club has been one of the smartest and most successful teams in MLS on and off the field for the last eight months). Sometimes, one is a happy fan. Sometimes, not so much. Occasionally, not at all.
To a greater or lesser extent, every fan base experiences falling in and out of love with its team's activities - often several times a season. As such, it is not confounding that RBNY fans were mostly unhappy in January and mostly happy now: the reasons should be clear to anyone who understands what it is to follow a team.
What is remarkable is that the New York Red Bulls have clearly and publicly committed to meeting with fans in Town Hall meetings twice a season. It's right there in the email just sent out to Season Ticket Holders:
The club will annually host a pre-season and mid-season Town Hall meeting...
And, in case we thought that might be overzealous phrasing from the Communications team, the same message is being put out through the press corps:
@MLSAnalyst club plans to do a pre-season & mid-season town hall from here on out. don't think this is "pat ourselves on the back," per say— Eric Giacometti (@Eric_Giacometti) August 25, 2015
Ali Curtis did say he did not want the January Town Hall to be the last such event, but he could have simply used such comments to support the appearance of running an approachable club without ever actually following through on it. Now we have follow-through: twice-yearly Town Halls will be a fact of RBNY's engagement with its Season Ticket Holders, at least for as long as Curtis is in charge.
There will be good times and bad times at Red Bull Arena - mostly good, we hope. It is hard to imagine emotions ever running higher in the fan base than they did last January, but it isn't hard to think of circumstances that might trigger a similar response. Conceivably, if the club's trades keep mostly working out and the team continues along the trajectory it has established so far this season, we could be raging at the Red Bulls in 2017 after the Curtis/Marsch era is inexplicably cut short by the next change of plan to pop into Papa's head.
What is to be applauded and should be held up as an example to the rest of MLS is the RBNY front office's commitment to engaging with its core supporters, regardless of whether the team is in a a time of triumph or disaster. That promise, if maintained, is almost unique in this league. MLS clubs do occasionally sit down with their fans (Chicago Fire COO Atul Khosla, faced with a fan base on the brink of revolt, recently had a public Q&A with his team's supporters), but rarely do they commit to doing so on a recurring schedule.
As a fan, I don't expect to agree with everything my club does, but I also don't expect to be able to voice my opinion directly to the front office and (this time - surely the players' representative will rotate) team captain. The former is a fact of fandom, the latter an unusual privilege.
No doubt the execs will dodge any uncomfortable questions: there are limits to transparency, whether necessitated by prudent desire to keep tactics and strategy under wraps or the simple ambition to avoid personal embarrassment. The execs know they'll get a question or two they cannot or will not answer, and they know there is strong possibility they'll say something that might be true now but won't be true six months later when it gets unearthed to support whatever criticism appears warranted at that time. Town Hall meetings are fraught with occupational hazards, which is why they aren't usually a staple of a team's interactions with its fans.
So thank you, Ali Curtis, for making your job a little bit harder and my support for RBNY a little more engaged.