Something is up with the New York Red Bulls. By January 11, 2017 - two days before the MLS SuperDraft, 12 days before players are expected to report for preseason training, and 42 days before RBNY's first match of the new season - against Vancouver Whitecaps in CONCACAF Champions League - the Red Bulls had amassed a growing list of questions about their plans for the year ahead.
The team's MLS roster is some distance from looking ready for 2017, and even rumors of new signings are in short supply. The last significant player move RBNY made was re-signing center back Aurelien Collin, announced on January 4. Meanwhile, the club's promotional efforts for its first-ever CCL quarterfinal have graduated slowly from "invisible" to "hesitant": tickets are (finally) on sale, and the RBNY website has five reasons for you to buy them. And then the news dropped that head coach Jesse Marsch was missing the MLS Combine for an unspecified meeting with Red Bull "executives" in "Europe" - and RBNY couldn't or wouldn't say when exactly he would be back.
In isolation, each of those matters is not that big a deal. RBNY will sign players, and it doesn't sign them for the purpose of providing news to fans, so the lack of information is not in itself a sign of anything beyond a lack of (publishable) information. The club will play in CCL and lamenting its marketing efforts is one of the few reliable pleasures of being a fan of RBNY: there is nothing in itself exceptional about the team having a promotional strategy that is open to criticism. For a head coach to be missing from the MLS Combine and possibly the SuperDraft is unusual, but that too could be explained away: Red Bull soccer is a global organization with its own priorities, and those don't have to include making Jesse Marsch pretend to be interested in watching scrimmages between college players.
But the rumor mill abhors a vacuum, and it actually is a pretty big deal if a soccer club cannot say whether its own head coach is going to be back for an off-season event that traditionally includes that soccer club's head coach. It wasn't only fans who were wondering whether something was up at RBNY:
In due course, along came a possible explanation, not just for Marsch's absence but also perhaps for RBNY's off-season silence in general:
Big news: Multiple sources have told me that Jesse Marsch is in serious talks to move to Red Bull Salzburg.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) January 11, 2017
Oh. Yes, that would indeed explain why Marsch skipped the Combine, and might also explain why the team hasn't been in a hurry to announce many signings - if there's a new coach incoming, then it would be prudent to let him put his stamp on the roster by being around when new players are announced.
Sam Stejskal reported for mlssoccer.com that RBNY's plan was to promote from within, with current assistant coaches Denis Hamlett and Chris Armas in the frame to take over as head coach if Marsch moves to Austria.
Ives Galarcep, reporting for Goal.com, advanced the story, advising Armas would get the job:
BIG-time shakeup @ the Red Bulls, w/sources telling me Chris Armas will take charge as head coach as Jesse Marsch finalizes move to Salzburg https://t.co/wNwvXVZe8m— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) January 11, 2017
Indeed, Galarcep's sources forecast a wholesale shakeup of the RBNY front office:
The Red Bulls are also going to promote assistant coach Denis Hamlett to sporting director. What the future holds for previous sporting director Ali Curtis remains to be seen.
Jesse to Salzburg and Ali to...wherever? This seemed to be drastic remodeling of a club leadership that hasn't done too much wrong in its two-year tenure at the helm of RBNY.
There was a line in Galarcep's report that suggested his sources might not be working with the most current information:
Marsch leaves the Red Bulls to replace Oscar Garcia Junyent as Red Bull Salzburg manager, with Junyent finalizing a deal to manage La Liga side Malaga.
Juande Ramos quit Malaga in late December, with the rumor mill confident Salzburg's Oscar Garcia would take over coaching duties at the La Liga club. But Malaga filled the vacant head coach position with Marcelo Romero, and Austria's Kurier reported that Garcia had set his mind to becoming the first coach to last more than two seasons at Salzburg since the Red Bull takeover. Reporting for Kurier, Stephan Blumenschein advised that Garcia's contract at Salzburg runs to the summer of 2018, and his most recent extension does not include an exit clause: if he's poached by another club, it will have to include a fee to Papa Red Bull.
The same day US soccer media was suggesting Jesse Marsch was readying to take his job, Oscar Garcia was telling the press in Salzburg "now is time to work" as his branch of the Red Bull family returned to training from their winter holiday.
No sooner had the Marsch-to-Salzburg rumor been born and started to bloom, then it started to be walked back a little, taking with it suggestion that RBNY was heading for a complete overhaul of its leadership.
To clarify earlier RBNY story version, Ali Curtis is still RBNY sporting director, I'm told Denis Hamlett would become technical director— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) January 11, 2017
To be clear, from what I understand, this deal isn't yet done. Still some moving parts. Marsch could end up back in New York.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) January 11, 2017
So Ali Curtis still has a job and Jesse Marsch might return from his latest trip to Europe to guide RBNY's 2017 campaign.
Kristian Dyer - a reporter who does not lack for his own RBNY and MLS sources - has yet to find his own way in to the story:
There is definitely something up with RBNY. Marsch is definitely away, and the Red Bulls are not helping quell speculation by not providing any good explanation. The more time without sight of RBNY's head coach or reason for his continuing absence, the more it starts to seem probable he is on his way out of the club.
But probable is not the same as certain. There is another side to this rumor - from Austria - that has yet to be heard. Right now, the biggest question around RB Salzburg is about the future of teenage defender Dayot Upamecano, but that may shortly be supplanted by the question of whether the team's head coach (who won a league and cup double last season) is about to be replaced by an unknown (to Salzburg fans, one would assume) American. Should be some interesting stories emerging from Austria shortly.