In his first official engagement as the New York Red Bulls sporting director, Denis Hamlett made clear that the identity the club has cultivated since 2015 will not be drastically changed by his appointment. And that this identity owes less to the 300-page plan of his predecessor than popular narratives surrounding the team over the last couple of years have suggested.
On a conference call with local and national media, Hamlett credited visits to Austria and Germany since joining RBNY with providing him with a "good understanding of Red Bull Global Soccer." Expanding slightly in response to a question about the club's direction in the absence of Ali Curtis, Hamlett did not reference the outgoing SD's ubiquitous 300-page plan. "Our philosophy is in place," he told reporters, again describing the value of first-hand knowledge of the Red Bull Soccer set-ups in Leipzig and Salzburg, and reiterating the club's continuing commitment to identifying and signing "younger players who fit the playing style."
In his own comments after his surprising departure from RBNY, Ali Curtis also seemed to suggest the emphasis applied to his 300-page plan was misplaced.
@richardfarley "That makes me chuckle more than anything." -- What he actually said. (Also 'every club has its own plan.')— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) February 16, 2017
The Curtis plan is a real thing that exists, and doubtless does contribute to his overall professional philosophy and surely influenced his work for RBNY - it just got conflated with an overall structure and identity that followed a different lead: that of Red Bull Global Soccer, and specifically the football philosophy of RB Leipzig's Sporting Director, Ralf Rangnick.
That it took Curtis' departure to shake off a mistaken narrative about RBNY is unfortunate, and the correction should not in any way diminish the contribution of the club's last sporting director. It should, if anything, provide clearer context for the job Curtis did in aligning RBNY with its siblings in the Red Bull Global Soccer family. Ironically, perhaps, it will be easier to discern what part of the work done was unique to Curtis now that he is gone, not least because a new role at a new entity might make it more obvious where his own instincts and preferences depart from those of Papa Red Bull and Ralf Rangnick.
For Hamlett, the job appears mostly to be to stay the course established in 2015. It's a course he knows well, having served as the primary assistant on head coach Jesse Marsch's coaching staff for the duration of the project to date. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Hamlett sounded a lot like Curtis in his opening remarks to the media.
He came across as modest but confident, deflecting praise for his MLS playing career - "I played one year" - while noting he was prepared for his new role by more than a decade (including two seasons as head coach) with Chicago Fire and a succession of coaching and scouting roles within MLS since that trophy-laden run with Chicago (four US Open Cups, one Supporters' Shield and one MLS Cup in the years Hamlett worked at the club).
The new job is "an excellent opportunity" for one of the most experienced coaches in MLS. He conceded his first official week on the job is "hectic". He was officially named SD on Tuesday, February 28. The league requires rosters be made compliant with this year's regulations by Wednesday, March 1, and the squad is in Vancouver for a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match against the Whitecaps on Thursday; there follows a trip to Atlanta for RBNY's MLS 2017 season-opener on Sunday, March 5.
In its own way those obvious pressures on his time and attention were convenient. Hamlett confidently brushed aside questions about Fredrik Gulbrandsen - reportedly incoming from RB Salzburg - and would only confirm that his assistant coach role on the staff would be filled, but would not say exactly when or how. There are, of course, more immediate priorities at RBNY.
He handled the inevitable question about the club's ambition for another Designated Player with what has become RBNY's customary line on the subject any time it comes up: the team has the necessary resources to pursue a player who might require a DP contract, and it will do so if it thinks it should or must, but the current inclination is to "see how this plays out". Translation: the Red Bulls aren't of the opinion they need to pay DP money to a new signing just to be able to say they have made a DP signing; there is a plan, and it mostly seeks out players who don't require DP contracts.
Don't hold your breath for a new DP - garnishing the team with big-splash signings hasn't been part of the team's strategy for the last two seasons, and it seems unlikely to be a part of it for at least as long as the current policies continue to deliver a winning team on the field.
With regard to the current roster, and in response to a direct question about the player, Hamlett expressed excitement about the potential of Homegrown midfielder Tyler Adams. But he noted that the club has encouraged the player to focus on his commitment to the US U-20 Men's National Team at the ongoing CONCACAF Championship, and did not reveal any specific targets or expectations for the teenager with regard to playing time for RBNY. Mostly, Hamlett said the team was relieved Adams was back on the field for the U-20s after a bad tackle in the opening game of the current tournament looked like it might sideline the player for several weeks.
It was in many ways the standard chat with RBNY's sporting director since 2015: broadly focused on advancing the club's overall vision and identity, cautiously declining the invitation to provide detailed insight into current and future plans. Hamlett is Hamlett and will have his own style and methods, but he could have been reading his comments on his first media chat as SD from a script provided by Ali Curtis, and that is probably exactly how the club likes it. Hamlett's appointment signals RBNY's commitment to continuity - of focus and vision - on the task it set itself in 2015.
The hierarchy of the club remains the same as it ever was: Hamlett is nominally superior to Marsch. But the SD was keen to stress there is a collective approach to the leadership of RBNY, and that would only be amplified by his long-term working relationship with the head coach:
I’ve had a professional relationship with Jesse for over 20 years. He’s going to report to me, but I think the most important thing is that it’s a partnership. We sit down, we have discussions, we put things on the table and at the end, we make the right decision for what’s best for the club, the organization and the team. The key thing for us is that there’s always communication.
Not for the first time, things have changed at RBNY. But also expect them to stay largely the same. The Red Bulls lost their sporting director in the off-season, but they have not lost their sense of direction.