The strange saga of Ali Curtis is finally over as the New York Red Bulls announced on Thursday morning that the club has parted ways with the team's sporting director.
In a press release, the Red Bulls announced that the two parties had mutually agreed to separate.
Red Bulls Statement: "We would like to thank Ali for his contributions to the club over the last two seasons. We wish him the best in all of his future endeavors."
Ali Curtis Statement: "I thank the New York Red Bulls for the opportunity... It was a privilege and honor to serve the fans, players and staff. I am very proud of all the work and accomplishments of our team, both on and off the field, from the youth academy, through the USL team and to the first team. I would also like to thank the families of all of the staff and players as their support helped to fuel our achievements. Lastly, the lifeblood of a club remains its fans, and I would be remiss if I did not thank them for their tremendous passion. The New York Metropolitan area will always be very special to me as my two children were born here, and loved cheering at Red Bull Arena. I will bring all of these good memories to my next opportunity in this great sport."
Curtis's tenure got off to a rocky start after his December 2014 hiring with the highly-controversial firing of head coach Mike Petke and hiring of former Montreal Impact head coach Jesse Marsch - moves that resulted in highly-publicized fan outrage.
However, in late-January he made arguably one of the best trades in club history, acquiring Felipe and the top spot in the allocation order from Montreal Impact and then using the allocation spot to land Sacha Kljestan. It was a complicated move to acquire targets important to new head coach Marsch. But Curtis was widely credited with an advanced understanding of MLS trade mechanisms and roster rules, thanks to his time working in the league's head office. Speaking to Sports Illustrated about the multi-layered trade for Kljestan and Felipe, Marsch praised his sporting director's acumen at the negotiating table:
He cranked away at it every day and when he came back to me and said, ‘The deal’s done. We’re there,’ I almost couldn’t believe it. I think that’s a product of his understanding of how the business works and how to systematically move through different negotiations, different scenarios, and how to get them done.
Along with the acquisitions of Kemar Lawrence, Ronald Zubar, and Mike Grella, the 2015 Red Bulls won their second Supporters' Shield and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 2016 season saw the team focus more on promoting from the academy, bringing through the likes of Alex Muyl, Derrick Etienne Jr, and Tyler Adams into the fold. But a mid-season trade for Aurelien Collin was required to bolster a flagging back line. The team won its second regular-season Eastern Conference title.
Unfortunately, controversy arose in January. Transfer market activity seemed stagnant despite obvious gaps in the roster, Jesse Marsch briefly disappeared and was rumored to be moving to Red Bull Salzburg, and Curtis himself vanished from day-to-day club business as soon as Marsch was reported to be resurfacing. And then came the contentious trade of Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire. Rumors emerged that Curtis and Marsch had fallen out over which senior midfielder to trade this off-season: club captain Dax or Marsch's man from Montreal, Felipe.
And rumors persisted for weeks that Curtis was on the outs in some kind of corporate shakeup. Clearly, something was up: he disappeared from view while the team carried on hiring and firing players without him. But the club - with little choice, in fairness - stuck with the official line that there was no change to the management of its sporting operations. That stance was not adjusted in the face of multiple reports that assistant coach Dennis Hamlett was taking the role of player contract negotiations.
RBNY's official concession that there were "differing views" it tried to reconcile with Curtis "over the past four weeks" is at least a sort of confirmation that there is a conflict of opinion at the root of this episode. Ironically, the man with the 300-page plan, the man Red Bull allegedly hired for his comprehensive and detailed strategic vision as much as his unsurpassed expertise in MLS trade rules, appears to have had his time at RBNY cut short because the club (or someone influential within it) no longer shares that vision.