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Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch: How Two MLS Lifers Changed the Course of the New York Red Bulls

RBNY’s new sporting director and head coach have been charged with rebooting the franchise and so far, so good.

New York Red Bulls

On November 29, 2014, the New York Red Bulls’ season had come to an end in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Following their 2-2 draw in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Red Bulls’ quest for an MLS Cup appearance came to an end at the hand’s of the New England Revolution, who advanced 4-3 on aggregate.  As he stood outside a women’s bathroom in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, head coach Mike Petke told the gathering media to prepare for a very different-looking RBNY outfit in 2015.

Little did we, or Petke, realize how drastic the differences would be.

Coming off the most successful front office stint in franchise history, RBNY sporting director Andy Roxburgh was ending his two-and-half-year run at the club. Many wondered who would replace the esteemed Scotsman and in what direction would they take NY?

Red Bulls fans would have their answer on December 23, 2014 as former MLS player and league executive Ali Curtis was tapped as Roxburgh’s successor. And in almost his first move for RBNY, the new sporting director brought the hammer down on the memories of 2014.

On January 6 , 2015 as Curtis fired Petke and replaced him the next day with ex-Montreal Impact head coach Jesse Marsch.

We all know what happened after that; billboards, town halls and a lot of upset RBNY fans; some of whom vowed to never support the team again.

Once the dust settled, Curtis and Marsch, now forever connected as a double act in the land of Taurine soccer, set out to remake the New York Red Bulls in their image.

For years, RBNY has seen its performance take a dive in the August heat. This year however, NY has bucked the trend and are playing their best soccer of the season, amassing a 8-2-1 record in their last 11 league games. RBNY currently finds itself in second place in the Eastern Conference (two points behind leaders D.C. United with three games in hand and current league leaders in points per game).

For a season that was very much looking like a rebuilding one, New York Red Bulls fans’ now find themselves in the position of having Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup aspirations.

How did we get here?

MLS Lifers In Control

After over a decade of owning the team, did RBNY brass finally wise up and realize that having people who have spent time within MLS in positions of power is the best path to success in this league?

Other than the 16 months Bruce Arena occupied both the roles of head coach and GM from July 2006 to November 2007, the Red Bulls had never had both their head coach and general manager/sporting director positions held by Americans who had previous MLS experience either as a player or in coaching/executive roles.

For the years following the Red Bull GmbH takeover of the MetroStars in 2006, NY employed a parade of foreign coaches and general managers/sporting directors. Many of those foreign imports, particularly the GM/sporting directors, came to RBNY with no prior MLS experience.

If there’s one thing long-time MLS fans and pundits are aware of it’s the fact MLS is an animal unlike any other in professional soccer. With a labyrinth of roster rules, player acquisition mechanisms, an amoebic salary cap and a travel experience vastly different from every other league in the world, MLS presents challenges that only those involved in the league understand.

By having Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch in place, the Red Bulls had two individuals who wouldn’t be caught off-guard by the idiosyncrasies an MLS (and U.S. Open Cup) campaign would throw at them.

With the conclusion of a distinguished career at Duke University, Ali Curtis was selected second overall in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft but the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Curtis went on to spend three seasons as a forward with the Mutiny, D.C. United and the Dallas Burn. After he was unable to latch on with a team following his March 2004 release, Curtis retired and took a job with J.P. Morgan with an eye on returning to MLS in any capacity.

Curtis parlayed a relationship with MLS Commissioner Don Garber into a job at MLS in business development, sponsorship and expansion where he then transitioned to the player relations and competitions department. As per Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus, Curtis managed the league’s relationship with the union and helped teams and players negotiate the complex litany of regulations (some of which Curtis wrote) that govern signings and acquisitions. He worked with successful clubs and struggling ones, and he picked the brains of the GMs and technical directors who ran them.

Jesse Marsch joined NY with a wealth of MLS experience. As head coach of the Montreal Impact during the club’s inaugural season in 2012. Marsch led the Impact to 12 wins in the club’s first season which was the joint-most wins by an MLS expansion team since 1998 (Seattle picked up 12 wins in 2009).

At the conclusion of an All-American campaign for Princeton University in 1995, Marsch was drafted by D.C. United in the 1996 MLS College Draft. Despite playing only 15 games in his first two seasons with United, Marsch would move onto the Chicago Fire in the 1998 Expansion Draft, kick-starting an impressive career that would ultimately span 14 seasons, during which he would win three MLS Cups and four U.S. Open Cup Championships with United, the Fire and Chivas USA. Marsch made 321 appearances, scoring 31 goals and tallying 40 assists. He would also serve as a mentor to one Sacha Kljestan during his time at Chivas USA.

Marsch’s coaching experience started with the USMNT where he assisted his old Princeton coach Bob Bradley during the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 2011 Gold Cup.

Fully immersed in American soccer over the last two decades, Curtis and Marsch have seen the ever-changing landscape of MLS from various perspectives. There are very few duos (other than Bruce Arena and nearly anyone else, such is Arena's stand-alone experience - not for nothing he is the Head Coach and General Manager of LA Galaxy) RBNY could have brought in with more MLS experience than the Curtis-Marsch combo.

A Better Allocation of Funds Across the Roster Has Resulted Greater Depth

During the Erik Solér and Hans Backe years of 2010-2013, RBNY was heavily reliant on European talent to round out its squad. Due to MLS’s salary and roster rules, international player slots have to be used as efficiently as possible and the Solér-Backe pairing would often misallocate funds on marginal European signings.

In 2012, RBNY had 15 players on its roster that received a guaranteed compensation of over $100,000 while the 2015 edition only had 10 (prior to the summer additions of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Verón).

Those roster imbalances look even more stark when you take into account that the salary budget for players occupying roster spots 1-20 was $2.81M in 2012 while it was $3.49M for those spots in 2015. Having more players take up a larger chunk of a smaller salary budget severely limited NY’s ability to have a deep roster.

For years the Red Bulls have struggled navigating the salary cap. With a tendency to acquire high-priced (in MLS terms, anyway), European-based talent, RBNY would always be stuck with a top-heavy roster, lacking depth.

If there’s a person that was qualified to get RBNY out of its cap mess, it was Ali Curtis. As a league source told Empire of Soccer back in March, "Ali Curtis wrote the damn rulebook."

Now operating with one of the league’s lowest payroll’s (it was MLS’s lowest prior to the SWP and Verón signings) Curtis has put NY in position to make any addition they desire. We’ll see what they will do, if anything, going forward, with that flexibility.

In the quest to be more prudent with Red Bull's dollars, Curtis has been able to craft a roster that is, perhaps, the deepest in franchise history.

In years past, the Red Bulls have traditionally wilted in the August heat. Succumbing to injuries and sluggish play, RBNY fans have grown accustomed to the "Summer Swoon."

Not this year.

NY has not only avoided getting tripped up this past month, it has enjoyed its best run of the season going undefeated in four games from the start of August, with three wins, stretching a July-to-August unbeaten streak to six matches, before a loss in Chicago - and then bouncing back to thump DC at Red Bull Arena and assert itself as a title challenger heading into the Fall.

That roster depth really showed during NY's home win over Toronto FC.

Featuring a back line that featured only one regular (Matt Miazga, who wasn't a starter on opening day) and a combined guaranteed compensation of $259,391.01, the Red Bulls blanked TFC's high-powered offense - former Metros Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and MLS MVP front-runner Sebastian Giovinco.

In fact, RBNY featured its third-choice (although he now looks to be second-choice) left back in Anthony Wallace. A player who was picked up off the scrap heap, Wallace used his time with NY’s USL team, NYRB II, to emerge as a qualified replacement for starter Kemar Lawrence; another of Curtis's offseason finds.

Dax McCarty was particularly impressed with the sub’s performance that evening.

"The depth is so important and so impressive," the Red Bulls captain said. "You have injuries, suspensions, call ups and you need to have a full roster of players to come in.

"I think that speaks volumes to our system. We have a system that every player needs to know how to play in, and once they come in, it's a seamless transition."

McCarty is a player who is uniquely qualified to pontificate on the depth of the Red Bulls. Particularly, he has first-hand experience of a much different time.

McCarty came to NY via a June 2011 trade with D.C. United for Dwayne De Rosario (who himself was only acquired by NY in April of that year from Toronto). It's just those types of whirlwind moves that have been a staple of McCarty's time in an RBNY shirt.

The defensive midfielder was here for the days when Hans Backe seemingly played the first XI for 90 minutes, game after game. During that time, Backe's reserve players were described as being nothing more than traffic cones in practice while serving as sacrificial lambs to be tossed to slaughter in the U.S. Open Cup.

During an appearance on Seeing Red, McCarty expounded on the changing dynamics of the NY roster.

"We’re not a team that is solely relying on individual players anymore," the RBNY captain said. "We’re a team that’s relying on a system of play. Anytime you do that, you should be able to plug players in [to the lineup] that are going to be able to do just as good of a job. The system allows them to do that.

We have a system here that’s starting to flourish. People are starting to see the fruits of all of the hard work we’ve put in, especially the coaching staff.

When we’re missing players it’s a ‘next man up’ mentality. A lot of teams can talk about depth but I think we’re a team that can sit here and prove that no matter who is out, no matter who’s injured we’re going to have a guy that’s going to be able to step in. Because of the system, that guy is going to be able to come in and do a good job."

Integrating The Academy and Reserve Teams Into The Plans of the First Team

We here at OaM have been telling you how instrumental the Red Bulls’ USL team, NYRB II, has been towards the first team’s success in 2015.

It didn't have to be, especially given the fact this is the first year of the pro reserve team's existence. How did the Red Bulls start to create a symbiotic relationship between academy (rated as one of the best in the U.S.), newly-created USL team and the MLS squad?

During an appearance on Pitch Pass, Marsch explained how he was excited to get involved in RBNY's player development system:

"When you see all of the resources and facilities (that RBNY has), you see that it is an opportunity to do things right," Marsch said. "A big part of that for me is getting the academy right. When I was with the U.S. National Team I was the first assistant coach ever to go down and work with the youth teams. In my time with U.S. Soccer I worked the U-14, U-15, U-17, U-18, U-20 and the U-23s. I would work the coaches and players, trying to help connect the dots between what was happening with Bob Bradley’s team and what was happening with the youth teams."

Marsch had hoped to bring that experience with him to his first MLS coaching stop in Montreal but would learn that you can only do as much as your organization allows you.

"We tried to implement some of that in Montreal but there were a lot of challenges that made it very difficult to achieve. But here, everything is under one roof. We have really integrated our training methods, tactics, philosophies and mentalities, from the U-12s all of the way up to the first team. We’re connecting the dots in every way to make sure that everybody is aligned and everybody is on the same page."

Although Marsch was unable to see any of these plans he hoped to implement in Montreal through, his partnership with Curtis has resulted in the type of organization that Red Bulls’ fan have hope for.

After years of disconnection between academy and first team, Curtis and Marsch now have a direct link between the two with the creation of NYRB II. Not only have fans and pundits alike have seen the benefits of the NY’s new focus on the organizational depth, so have the players.

Having spent his entire 10-year pro career in MLS, Dax McCarty has seen the growth of the league.

"NYRB II has been truly unbelievable in so many different ways," McCarty said on a recent episode of Seeing Red.

"It’s been such a positive step forward for MLS. The fact that you had to start integrating not only just the academies, but a way for your reserve team players and your young players that are not the first team but don’t get minutes a way to integrate them into a professional environment."

McCarty vividly remembers the bad old days.

"Back in 2006, 2007, 2008 when I wasn’t playing as consistently, I’ll readily admit the reserve games were a joke that we played in," McCarty revealed. "It wasn’t taken seriously. Guys didn’t care about the games. It was the morning after the first team game. A lot times guys just didn’t want to be on the field and it was tough to get a lot out of it."

Unlike those dark days, McCarty is excited by what NYRB II provides RBNY’s youngsters.

"When you see young guys like Connor Lade, Anthony Wallace, Karl Quimette, Sean Davis, Leo Stolz and these types of players who you can see have an amazing amount of ability and talent but they could only show it in training," McCarty said.

"Now, you bring in this professional environment. (They’re playing against) teams that have been established for years now; that pay their players, their own fanbases, play in tough stadiums and environments.

"It’s essential for these kids to get games. If you play against guys in training you can only develop so much, that’s the bottom line. For these guys to be able to step onto the field, with fans in the seats, in games that are very important with stuff on the line that shows how far these players are going to come in the development of MLS is certainly on the right track.

So, You’re Saying That Signing Designated Players Because They’re Famous Might Not Lead to Success?

The MetroStars/Red Bulls had always been at the forefront of bringing big-name talent into the team. The likes of Claudio Reyna, Roberto Donadoni, Lothar Matthäus, Youri Djorkaeff, Juan Pablo Ángel, Thierry Henry, Rafael Márquez, Juninho Pernambucano, and Tim Cahill had all been brought in over the years to widely varying degrees of success with only Henry and Cahill being a part of a silverware-winning team with NY.

As Cahill and Henry departed after 2014, many Red Bulls fans clamored for replacement superstars. Despite those desires, Curtis would spend most of his early tenure saying that RBNY would be only looking to add "the right DP." Many NY fans took that as a cop-out to disguise Red Bull/Curtis’s unwillingness to spend money on the team. However, the acquisition of Gonzalo Verón via a $2.2M transfer fee and an undisclosed salary may indicate that Curtis may have been telling the truth.

Curtis’ phrase; "the right DP" is key in the new Curtis/Marsch philosophy. Players are being brought in strictly for soccer reasons and not marketing reasons. While it remains to be seen if the perfect soccer/marketing player opportunity such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi came along if RBNY would jump at the chance to bring them in, the days of the Rafa Marquez and Tim Cahill signings seem to be a thing of the past.

When Marquez and Cahill were brought in, there was seemingly no plan as to how they would work within the construction of the 2010 and 2012 rosters respectively, especially Cahill. The Cahill signing seemingly fell out of the sky as his representatives approached Red Bull about a possible transfer during the Summer of 2012. While deploying TH14 and Kenny Cooper at the forwards spots, Cahill was shoehorned into a midfield role that he has long struggled in. It wasn’t until 2013 when played as a striker following the departure of Cooper did RBNY get the best out of him. The Red Bulls ran into the same problem in 2014 as Bradley Wright-Phllips, in the form of his life, took over while Cahill prioritized his place with the Australian national team prior to the 2014 World Cup.

Former MetroStars and Red Bulls great Tony Meola praised the team for finally rectifying its strategy in an interview with Capital New York:

"What they're doing here? I love the plan," Meola said. "They're building something. In the past? I don't know if it was building or putting bandaids sometimes. But these guys have a plan, it's pretty well laid out. You look at some of their signings, they're pretty shrewd signings. The way they've done business has been really good. My guess is if they wanted to go out and spend on some of those multi-million dollar signings of some of the others, they can do that. But maybe that won't fit with the plan."

Once NY finally made the decision to add a second Designated Player to the roster (Bradley Wright-Phillips had been upgraded to a DP during the offseason) Curtis went south to Argentina in search of the player that could put the Red Bulls over the top in 2015 and lead them into the future.

Long lamenting RBNY’s reliance on European-based DPs (by heritage or playing career), NY fans have wanted the Red Bulls to go into South America in search of their own Diego Valeri, Fabian Castillo or Pedro Morales.

This Summer, Curtis did just that. Culling from personal experience in MLS, he headed into Argentina, looking to tap into the market of relatively cheap, skillful players that provide the greatest bang for the buck. Curtis emerged with Gonzalo Verón, an Argentine winger from Club Atletico San Lorenzo in the Argentine Primera Division.

Whereas fans had prior knowledge of the NY’s past DPs, all that was readily known about the Argentine was culled from YouTube clips and a few South American publications. Red Bulls fans were going to have to trust that Curtis made the right decision.

"I’ve had the fortune as a player to play with a lot of great players from Central and South America," Curtis said at Verón’s introductory press conference. "My rookie year I played with Carlos Valderrama, In Dallas, I played with Óscar Pareja, In D.C., I was able to play with Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno. So, it’s no surprise that’s there’s a lot of talent in Central and South America, particularly in Argentina."

"Recently while in the league office I had an opportunity to work on a number of different player transactions; Fredy Montero, Fabian Castillo. So, we knew this was an area that we wanted to focus on. The entire staff worked tirelessly to find the right player with the right fit and we got our man, Gonzalo. It wasn’t easy, but all of us combed as much video as possible, reached out to all of our contacts and we knew Gonzalo was the right player for what we’re trying to do moving forward and also today."

If Red Bulls fans need a 2015 reminder of things used to be, they have to look no further than great experiment that is New York City Football Club.

YankCity seems to be determined to follow the old Metro plan when it comes to roster construction and reached a pinnacle of that philosophy when they signed Andrea Pirlo. Anyone would cherish having the Italian legend in their squad, in a vacuum. But trying to wedge him into a lineup that was already in need of defensive cover for a shaky backline, while having already having hitched its creative wagons to Frank Lampard (at least in theory, as he’s barely seen the field so far) and Mix Diskerud, isn’t the best use of assets.

We will see if that strategy will yield the same amount of "success" that it did for the MetroStars and Red Bulls.

See What the LA Galaxy Do? Do That

The LA Galaxy is the crown jewel of MLS. Full stop.

Throughout the history of the league, and especially the last six years, LA has figured out the matrix that is MLS.

The Galaxy has such a strong foundation and organizational philosophy that it is always in position to supplement its roster with DPs that fulfill those dual marketing and soccer roles that are the dreams of MLS coaches and GMs/sporting directors alike. 2015 has been a banner year for LA in that pursuit.

This January 7th, the Galaxy secured the signature of Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard in a move that could be looked as a marketing first and soccer second. But to look closely at the corresponding moves LA made, you see that the soccer on the field, rather than the business, is always at the forefront of their thinking. Despite knowing that Gerrard wouldn’t arrive in SoCal until this July, LA began reshaping its midfield in order to accommodate the English playmaker.

A mere eight days after securing Gerrard’s signature, LA traded Marcelo Sarvas to the Colorado Rapids to in order to move up the allocation ranking.

While that move didn’t result in the acquisition of Sacha Kljestan that they were pursuing (It was Ali Curtis, of all people, who outmaneuvered LA, jumping ahead of the Galaxy and getting Kljestan into an RBNY shirt), it still gave them the flexibility to incorporate Gerrard into the lineup seamlessly.

As Gyasi Zardes, a homegrown player out of LA’s academy, began his shift from striker to winger for both club and the USMNT, that opened up a forward spot next to team captain Robbie Keane. Lo and behold, the Galaxy had the perfect tactical setup to acquire and implement Mexican star forward Giovanni dos Santos into the lineup.

By being a step ahead and having a balanced roster, the Galaxy are always in position to acquire the big player *and* use them properly.

Curtis and Marsch Understanding Each Other’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Once Curtis appointed Marsch to the head coaching position, the two men set out to get on the same page as quickly as possible. With the goal of making the sporting director and head coach true partners, Curtis and Marsch had to figure out what each brought to the table.

During that appearance on Pitch Pass, Marsch delved into the opening stages of their working relationship.

"Ali and I definitely hit it off," Marsch said of his first meeting with the new sporting director. "We started talking about using all of our different experiences and different strengths and could see that there were a lot of complements to each other."

"I’m a soccer guy. I'm the guy who thinks about the grassroots; the on the field stuff and working with the players and the coaches within the organization. That's my strength."

"What I lack is in the kind of organizational experiences and business experiences. [Ali has] an ability to think from a global perspective and systematically put things in place in an organized way. Ali brought a lot of that but he didn't have the on the field experience. Taking our individual talents and experiences and putting them in together has allowed us to enjoy the working relationship. Ali and I are different in a lot of different ways, but we’re very similar in terms of wanting to work with and challenge each other."

Marsch, The High-Press and RalfBall

Huan H. Nguyen has explored how the New York Red Bulls are embracing corporate synergy with their other Red Bull soccer brethren.

Credited as the cause of much of their success in 2015, RBNY’s vaunted high-press isn’t Marsch’s creation or as simple as just pressing in advanced positions. Rather, it seems to be the tactical philosophy of current RB Leipzig manager Ralf Rangnick, who was appointed sporting director of Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig in 2012. Rangnick’s chief goal was to create a unified system for both clubs. For the first time since Red Bull took over, it now seems that RBNY is being integrated into a collaborative effort with Salzburg and Leipzig.

That system which all teams in NY's organization now follow, allows for seamless transition for all players.

The current prize of the RBNY's academy and MLS stalwart center back Matt Miazga highlighted that transition following the Red Bulls' win over Toronto FC in mid-August.

"Everyone knows our system," Miazga said. "Every player knows it, every player believes in it. So when Damien and Kemar went out, Karl and Anthony came in and it was a seamless transition. They did a great job today. And like I said, when one guy goes down, the next guy is ready and he knows what he needs to do."

What Does This Mean for Future?

Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch are in the midst of a monumental organizational re-imagining of the New York Red Bulls. The foundation for long-lasting success is being laid down but the question remains whether this duo will be allowed to see the plan through. While NY seems to be heading in a successful direction, the LA Galaxy remains the class of MLS and are prime position not only to win MLS Cup again this year (which would be its fourth in five years), but also to win it over the next two or three years. And LA will surely retool when the current core squad loses its edge over the opposition.

If the Curtis-Marsch tandem doesn’t produce an MLS Cup title in 2014 or 2015, will Austrian ownership ignore everything else and look to make yet another change?

That’s the great fear of Red Bulls fans. After a decade of upheaval and fly-by-night decision-making, will a sustainable strategic effort be undermined by an ownership group that only pays attention to one thing: championships?

Mike Petke may not have won an MLS Cup in his two years as head coach, but he did accomplish something no other MetroStars/Red Bulls head man has been able to do; help bring NY its first major trophy and create a connection and energy with the fanbase that has never occurred under Red Bull ownership.

That wasn’t enough to keep his job.

There’s the distinct possibility, and many say likelihood, that Curtis and Marsch will suffer the same fate unless they capture an MLS crown. And quickly.

Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch have brought stability to a perpetually unstable franchise in a short period of time. They’ve put the New York Red Bulls in a position to not only succeed today, but over the longterm as well. It’s ultimately up to ownership to support them in a way that allows them to see the job through.

Is Red Bull up to it? We’ll see.