Ali Curtis was the Christmas present no one thought they wanted but that will be missed most now he’s gone. He was appointed Sporting Director of the New York Red Bulls on December 23, 2014. On January 7, 2015, he sacked the only head coach who had ever taken RBNY to a major trophy. The same day, Jesse Marsch was appointed in Petke’s place. It was an extraordinary and dramatic gutting of what had finally seemed to be a successful set-up for RBNY. The team was already looking at a rebuilding year after Thierry Henry’s departure from the roster. It seemed Curtis had come in, found his new team hobbling a little and decided to kick its legs out from underneath it.
Within 10 days of the Petke decision, Curtis faced fans calling for his immediate dismissal at a Town Hall meeting with season ticket holders. There were fan-funded billboards calling for Red Bull to quit MLS and leave the team it couldn’t stop tinkering with alone for good. It was perhaps the most dramatic introduction of new leadership the twice-named New York club has even seen - and this is a club with a long history of dramatic changes of leadership.
Scarcely two years after he was appointed and engineered one of the most discordant off-seasons in RBNY history, Ali Curtis is gone. What is most remarkable of all about his departure: he will be missed.
Curtis arrived talking about a 300-page plan for he had put together to explain his vision for running a soccer club. It was the plan credited with getting him hired by Red Bull. It was the plan credited for the changes that kicked in almost as soon as he took over at RBNY: a full-time, professional reserve team in USL; a new playing style to be coached at every level of the club from Academy to first team; a different approach in the transfer market - favoring players who fit the new system over big, marketable names of the sort the team historically preferred to build around.
Truthfully, the plan talk never quite added up. The overall restructuring of the club’s coaching approach and playing style, even the transfer policy - all of that was a near-perfect facsimile of the measures Ralf Rangnick introduced at Red Bulls Salzburg and Leipzig back in 2012. Key decisions like the move to set up NYRB II in USL had already been initiated by the preceding sporting director, Andy Roxburgh. In an article praising Curtis for his vision, Sports Illustrated somehow simultaneously reported and failed to notice that RBNY had been exploring replacing Petke as head coach for months.
Truthfully, Curtis’ role at RBNY seemed more that of finisher than the guy who arrived to burn the club to the ground and start again. He picked up a large and ambitious project to dramatically tilt RBNY toward its fellow RB clubs and he got things done - taking credit or blame from fans in equal measure, but seemingly never deviating from the path. When he landed at RBNY, there was a lot work started but not completed: Ali Curtis got that work done.
The Red Bulls are a team, even its top executives must be team players. The part of the RBNY revolution he started that was unique to Ali Curtis will probably only become clear now that he is gone. We’ll notice something no longer happening that used to happen and wonder what changed: maybe the change was Curtis used to work at RBNY and doesn’t anymore.
He seemed a remarkably adept trade-maker and roster-builder. No team gets every player it wants, and not every player a team wants lives up to expectations. The mark of a well-run club, however, is getting most of what it wants or needs.
Under Curtis, RBNY seemed to mostly get what it wanted or needed. Most notably, the complex maneuvering to land Sacha Kljestan and Felipe - two targets Jesse Marsch requested the team go after. And the mid-season acquisition of Aurelien Collin in 2016: an urgently-needed reinforcement landed on extraordinarily-favorable terms (Orlando City got a throwaway draft pick and still had to pay around half Collin’s salary for the year).
And Curtis seemed to be working under considerable constraints. In a 2015 interview after RBNY had won the MLS Supporters’ Shield with one of the lowest squad payrolls in the league, Red Bull Global Soccer chief Oliver Mintzlaff used the club as an example of the financial prudence that drives the organization’s football operations.
If he was frustrated by the task of reducing cost while advancing the squad’s competitiveness, Curtis never showed it. Every day and every match at Red Bull Arena he was always walking around, making sure everything was going the right way with the club. He was constantly chatting with Marsch at the training ground, always on the field after each win, draw or loss shaking hands and giving hugs.
It was unusual when he disappeared from view this January because he was always accessible and available for a chat whenever he was around the media at the training facility. I have had many good conversations with Ali Curtis.
And he seemed to genuinely believe in and enjoy the team’s commitment to its Academy and younger players. The happiest I have seen him was after NYRB II’s shootout victories in the 2016 USL Playoffs against the Rochester Rhinos and Louisville City.
Curtis saw me and gave me a big hug after these big victories. He celebrated the reserve team’s first USL Cup victory with a genuine and irrepressible enthusiasm. And now he is gone. Whatever portion of his 300-page plan was responsible for RBNY’s success over the last two seasons, we may never know. Whatever Curtis might have wanted to do next at the Red Bulls might never happen.
The club must move on. It will quickly have to address some of the many questions created by Curtis’ departure - most urgently, those relating to the remodeling of responsibilities now the sporting director has left. Will there be a new appointment to the position? Will Jesse Marsch take on a duel role? Is Denis Hamlett the new SD, as has been rumored? And what “differing views” were so significant Curtis had to go?
We’ll find out in due course. Perhaps it is fitting that Curtis leaves RBNY in much the same way he arrived: causing a lot of uncomfortable questions to be directed at the club.
In the shorter term, the team must focus on CONCACAF Champions League. Curtis will watch RBNY’s first-ever regional club championship quarterfinal as a spectator. The Red Bulls game against Vancouver Whitecaps on February 22 is officially the first match of the post-Curtis era.
All there is to say to Ali Curtis is farewell and good luck in your future endeavors. In just two years, you made yourself unforgettable at RBNY. In a good way, for the most part. A very good way, for the very most part.
All there is to say to RBNY is: what’s next?