The New York Red Bulls made the decision to shift club captain Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire in January, and it remains the most significant decision of the team’s off-season - though perhaps only because there has yet to be an official statement about the fate of absentee sporting director Ali Curtis.
The current incarnation of RBNY announced itself in 2015 with the abrupt firing of head coach Mike Petke. That was quickly followed by the sudden trade of Ambroise Oyongo and Eric Alexander, a move that caught Oyongo unawares and knocked his career off course for a few months. Results under the leadership of Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch have been good, and those results - a Supporters’ Shield in 2015 and a top-of-the-Eastern-Conference finish in the 2016 regular season, plus a good run in the 2015 playoffs and qualification for the first CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal in the team’s history - helped to the club to ride out the storm provoked by the seemingly hasty and ruthless gutting of Petke’s squad and legacy.
At the same time, the shock trades haven’t really stopped happening. Lloyd Sam was quickly let go in the middle of the 2016 season, and then it was McCarty’s turn. Captain Dax isn’t the first victim of RBNY’s apparent no-consultation, no-hesitation decision-making, nor is he the first to speak out about it, but he is perhaps the most widely heard. Part of his popularity with fans in New York is explained by his tendency to be outspoken: Dax is a heart-on-his-sleeve sort of character, and a big personality projects well in sports.
If the Red Bulls thought McCarty would head off to Chicago quietly, they thought wrong. If they thought he’d go quietly after being “blindsided” by a trade he was informed about two days after his wedding and one day after arriving at his first US Men’s National Team training camp in two years, they thought especially wrong.
In a chat with media about his move to Chicago, McCarty was of course asked to discuss his feelings about the trade. It’s relevant to the Fire because of the lingering suspicion his reaction to the news was in part down to the fact he was being pitched out to one of the worst teams in MLS in recent years. But he was quick to lay that argument to rest:
McCarty says going from top team to struggling team did not play part in his reaction. Felt NYRB handled the trade poorly. #cf97— Guillermo Rivera (@FireConf) February 7, 2017
Dax: I’ve been through trades before. “It sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.” Says the Fire have a lot of ambition. #cf97— Danny Santaromita (@TheDanSanto) February 7, 2017
So the issue wasn’t the Fire. The issue was the Red Bulls.
More specifically, McCarty made clear who it is he believes is calling the shots at RBNY now, and therefore who he holds responsible for his own rough treatment as the club shuffles its roster in preparation for its 2017 season.
RBNY is Jesse Marsch’s club now, with McCarty’s abrupt exit from the roster the first official statement of the head coach’s assumption of greater control over the squad he is charged with leading to success on the field.
McCarty is a veteran player, and one who has played his entire career in MLS. The league does have unusual trade rules by global standards. Sending a player to another team without notice, consultation, or consent is not the way soccer clubs conduct their business in most places around the world - mostly because they are not allowed to do so. But all MLS player contracts are owned by MLS, and the teams in the league are allowed to reach agreements over which of them will take responsibility for those contracts without any discussion with the players in question.
McCarty knows this and knows also that the reality of the business he is in is that there are always younger, often cheaper, talents pushing to take the place of established veterans. Only a few seasons ago, RBNY was prone to losing young players who saw no viable path for their own development at a club that favored stars over starlets. Amando Moreno and Juan Agudelo are just two examples; Anatole Abang might be considered a third.
That problem appears to have been vanquished. Lloyd Sam was an every-game starter, when fit, for two successful seasons. When his place in the starting lineup was no longer secure, he was quickly offloaded to D.C. United, as Homegrown Alex Muyl claimed a starting spot in his rookie season.
McCarty - whose role with RBNY was challenged by the emergence of 24-year-old Sean Davis and teenager Tyler Adams - said himself that he understands, even supports, that rationale for the decision to trade him. As quoted by Franco Panizo for SBI:
There’s the business aspect of it. If you’re moving a veteran player on a high salary for business reasons and you have players that you think can step in and do the job that have lower salaries, that are younger, that you need to give minutes to, I’m the first one to say, ‘It’s a great move.’ There’s no player that’s bigger than any club and that’s something I understand full well.
The former club captain’s disappointment is not so much with the trade itself as the manner of its execution and its apparent contradiction of the “family” mantra RBNY has chanted since reinventing itself in 2015. As related by Panizo at SBI:
I do think that if you’re a club that preaches family and you’re a club that preaches doing things the right way and trying to treat players the right way then I don’t think you go and trade a guy who you say you’ve relied on a lot and that is your captain behind his back without at least telling him, ‘Hey, these are some possibilities. Unfortunately, we have to move you. Do you have any say in the matter? You just got married. You have a wife. This is a big moment in your career.'
The gap between words and deeds clearly jolted Dax McCarty and must have had some impact on other senior players in the squad. Even up-and-coming players would be well advised to balance RBNY’s clear commitment to allowing the next generation to come through with the club’s obvious willingness to make the deals it feels it has to make without warning, even if those deals center on leading veterans within the team.
McCarty was, without question, a loyal and committed servant of RBNY, and he feels - without question - ill-used by the scant regard for his contribution betrayed by the manner of his exit.
This is a team that preaches togetherness and a brotherhood and having each other’s backs – 'trust' is a big word that they use.
“They” would seem to be Jesse Marsch now. Sporting Director Ali Curtis, ironically, used to be credited with being the cold, ruthless deal-maker steering RBNY into its new era. In part, that is simply because that is the job of the sporting director: someone has to be the bad guy, the guy who argues over contracts and faces the media and fans when the hard decisions get made. If that responsibility is given to someone who is not the head coach, then the head coach’s relationship with players and fans is less affected by whatever happens around the negotiating table. Curtis’ job was not to be liked, it was to be effective. He seemed to be good at being effective, he had progressively become more liked as a result.
But it has been almost a month since Curtis was last seen to be close to the team. He has made no public statements regarding new signings, indeed there is suggestion he isn’t even acting behind the scenes for RBNY in any official capacity. There should be no doubt that Ali Curtis is on his way out of the club. McCarty is certainly in no doubt:
I don’t think Ali Curtis had anything to do with the decision. I think that’s fairly obvious with the way the club is treating Ali right now. It’s clear for everyone to see that he’s no longer a part of the decision making process going on at the Red Bulls, which is a little surprising to me considering he put together two years of one of the best teams in MLS that won the Supporters’ Shield and won an Eastern Conference, so that’s a little surprising to me how things are going down with Ali.
“The way the club is treating Ali right now” is, effectively, to erase him. Until whatever matters are being addressed are resolved, it is clear RBNY has no intention of saying anything substantive about its (likely former) Sporting Director. And that indeed looks an unfortunate end to a epoch-making career at the club.
Curtis was once hailed as personally responsible for the changes initiated in 2015. The “300-page plan” he brought with him to RBNY was supposedly the blueprint for every detail of the club’s transition to a new identity. The fact most of those details were also predicted by changes Red Bull Global Soccer started to make in 2012 when it hired Ralf Rangnick to run a “red thread” through its Salzburg and Leipzig operations was barely considered.
And despite it being increasingly obvious that RBNY is fitting itself to a template created by Rangnick, Curtis was unquestionably the MLS club’s change agent. He dismissed Mike Petke and appointed Jesse Marsch as head coach; his words explained the trades that followed; his expertise in navigating MLS rules and regulations was credited for RBNY’s ability to venture into the transfer market and emerge with what it wanted on favorable terms.
But Curtis is absent and deals are still being made. Deals every bit as ruthless as those we assumed to engineered by the genial man with the 300-page plan. But Marsch is making them now, at least as far as Dax McCarty is concerned.
In comments to FourFourTwo, Marsch has made it clear he regrets the way the Dax deal went down:
I don’t think that the trade and the way it happened honored the relationship that I had with Dax, and the relationship the club had with Dax, and that’s the unfortunate part.
And Dax has made it clear that those comments are not interpreted by him as suggesting Marsch was not in control of the decision and its execution. Per mlssoccer.com from McCarty’s sit-down in Chicago:
I saw the story and I saw the quotes that he made and I don’t really know what quite to make of them. Because at the end of the day you could tell it was a decision that was his decision.
I respect Jesse as a coach. He’s a hell of a coach and I think he’s gonna do great things in his career as a coach -- but obviously, as a person and a human being, I feel like things could’ve been handled differently and that’s a big shame.
When the dust settles at RBNY and Curtis’ exit is confirmed - as it appears increasingly certain will be the conclusion of the latest episode to unsettle the Red Bulls - perhaps Marsch will be happy to see a new sporting director appointed. His brief time in the spotlight usually directed at the SD looks to have been uncomfortable.
And he has a team to coach. Bygones will be bygones with McCarty.
And a fan base is resilient. Favorites, unfortunately, come and go. RBNY almost specializes in treating its most loyal or significant players and staff with casual disregard when it comes time to say goodbye. The past has demonstrated the Red Bulls fan base can and will forgive substantial indignities heaped upon its heroes as the club transitions from one era to the next. That is the task of any sports fan: you don’t have to like your club, you just have to love it.
Dax will move on, Jesse will move on, RBNY will reset its narrative (one would hope the club has the self-awareness to keep its “family” chatter suppressed for a while) and move on. The fans will stick around. Hoping, as always, that the latest change for a club that has changed everything including its name will be the change that brings the big prizes the team has yet to win, including MLS Cup.