How much evidence is enough evidence? Ali Curtis is an employee of the New York Red Bulls until whatever time he or the club says that is not the case, but RBNY's official stance - that the man appointed the team's sporting director in December, 2014, is still the team's sporting director - has surely lost any substantive credibility.
We used to know Ali Curtis was RBNY's SD because he was a near-daily part of the team's public activities. He was the voice of the club whenever there was hiring or firing to announce. He was once credited with essentially inventing the high-pressing, youth-favoring, team-is-the-star identity the club embraced as soon as he was appointed. But he hasn't made a public statement or appearance for weeks now.
When it was revealed Curtis had left the 2017 MLS Combine and SuperDraft due to "unforeseeable circumstances", the primary concern was that he might have some awful personal and private matter to address. That might well be the case, but it has been a month since Kristian Dyer reported for Metro (no relation) that RBNY's sporting director had dropped everything to return home from LA.
If there were a personal issue keeping Curtis from his usual work, one would expect a leak or two from the club to make clear media and fan speculation about his apparent dismissal was off the mark; perhaps even a sympathetic word or two from his colleagues at RBNY. But there hasn't been a whisper on the subject of Curtis' disappearance that doesn't suggest what many feared as soon as he left the Combine last month: Ali Curtis is the true, and perhaps only, victim of an upheaval at RBNY that saw rumors flying in January about a dramatic clear-out of the club's senior technical staff.
Back on January 11, Ives Galarcep reported a game of musical chairs at the Red Bulls that it was alleged could leave Curtis without a seat:
Marsch is set to join Red Bull Salzburg as manager, with assistant coach and former U.S. national team midfielder Chris Armas lined up as his replacement, sources have confirmed to Goal. 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.
Much about that paragraph appeared preposterous at the time, and the assertion Curtis' future was uncertain looked one of the least credible aspects of the report. But it's not so hard to believe anymore.
The day after Galarcep's report, Kristian Dyer reported Curtis was leaving his Draft-Day duties in LA while Marsch was returning from his rumor-starting trip to Europe. On January 13, we got Jesse Marsch making clear he was still head coach of RBNY and not moving to Salzburg. Three days after that, we learned the Red Bulls had traded club captain Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire.
It was conceivable that Curtis had run back to Harrison to get the Dax deal done, but this became a less likely story when it was revealed Marsch (who was still in LA at the time) had personally informed his club captain that the club had dealt him to Chicago for some MLS payroll vouchers. Marsch himself told FourFourTwo he took responsibility for the trade, seeming to accept whatever credit and blame there was for both the decision and the manner in which it was carried out. Of the man once presented as the visionary behind 2015's change of course for RBNY, Marsch would only say the club's front office was unchanged "for right now" before retreating behind the cover of the official Red Bulls line:
There’s been a statement about Ali already and I’ll stick to that.
Finally, McCarty stated he didn't see any evidence of Curtis' involvement in the matter.
Meanwhile, there has been a steadily snowballing rumor that there is no evidence of Curtis' involvement in pretty much anything at RBNY. On January 31, Kristian Dyer reported for Metro (no relation) that two sources had advised the Red Bulls' activity in the transfer market was being handled by assistant coach Denis Hamlett. On February 9 at mlssoccer.com, Sam Stejskal threw down four more (anonymous) sources supporting Dyer's report. On February 10, Glenn Crooks - who has been closely tracking NYCFC's preseason camp - added his voice to the chorus.
I can confirm that Hamlett is negotiating contracts of incoming players #RBNY @davisjsn #mls— Glenn Crooks (@GlennCrooks) February 10, 2017
We've seen this sort of thing before with RBNY in recent years, though it was assumed to be Ali Curtis guiding the "nothing to see here" silences that reigned over Armando Lozano's protracted separation negotiations in 2015. Ultimately, Armando was waived by the Red Bulls, after spending most of the team's preseason creating wondrous Instagram art that also neatly illustrated his lack of pro soccer activity.
It took maybe a month or so for Armando's situation to be resolved. That same season, Peguy Luyindula's status with the team wasn't officially cleared up until May - though that might have been because no one remembered to ask the Red Bulls where one of its heroes of 2014 had gone once the 2015 season kicked off in earnest.
So we know RBNY can and will simply not address a personnel issue until is conclusively resolved - and that is the right and professional thing to do. At the same time, however, we have seen this sort of approach deployed by the club before and it ends with a curt announcement that the individual in question is no longer with the club, In the case of Armando and Peguy, however, there were other players clearly taking up the roles in the squad they vacated.
In the case of Ali Curtis, there is no official replacement named to do the job he used to do. The rumor mill is telling us Denis Hamlett is taking care of what used to be Ali's business, but that is now for the club to to confirm. And that is the question the club ought to confirm.
Ali's employment status and precise location are not really the business of the general public or fans. But a club seeking to assure its supporters that it is ready for new season should be able to answer a relatively simple question: "Who is doing the job of the sporting director at RBNY?"
We haven't see or heard from Ali Curtis for more than a month. It is to be hoped he is OK. If the Red Bulls cannot provide that assurance, they should at least provide the assurance that the work Curtis once did is still being done, and - since it is the custom to identify who makes these decisions at any club - confirm whether the person doing it is Denis Hamlett or someone else.