clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Red Bull Salzburg is the 2016-17 UEFA Youth League champion

Benfica fell, 2-1, to Salzburg's U-19s in the final.

Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Salzburg has officially muscled itself into the top tier of European youth soccer by winning the 2016-17 UEFA Youth League - effectively, the U-19 Champions League.

The tournament has only been around for four seasons, and the first three were won by teams generally regarded as among the best in Europe at the present moment: Barcelona (winner of the first-ever Youth League title in 2013-14) and Chelsea (winner of the last two). And now Salzburg is added to the list: a club whose first team has made a habit of winning the Austrian Bundesliga but slumping out of UEFA Champions League qualifying before the group stage.

In the final of the 2016-17 Youth League, Salzburg played Benfica, and went to half-time trailing 1-0.

The teams traded chances in the second half until substitute Patson Daka got one to stick in the 72nd minute.

Four minutes later, Alexander Schmidt gave Salzburg the lead - and the Austrian club held on to claim a 2-1 win and its first Youth League title.

For Benfica, this was the second time in four seasons it has lost in the final of this tournament.

Salzburg's success is, of course, just the latest achievement for Red Bull Global Soccer: the family of clubs owned by Red Bull GmbH, manufacturer of a globally popular energy drink and high-profile backer of multiple teams and athletes across multiple sports.

Technically, Salzburg is not part of Red Bull Global Soccer. The official line is that Red Bull is merely Salzburg's sponsor, and the Austrian club sits outside the family of teams - RB Leipzig, RB Brasil, and the New York Red Bulls - that are fully-owned and operated by Red Bull. But that distinction has only recently been introduced as Red Bull seeks to comply with UEFA's prohibition on teams that share an owner entering the same competition. If Salzburg and Leipzig are seen to be violation of UEFA's ownership regulations, then there can only be room for one of them in the Champions (or Europa) League.

Red Bull insists Salzburg is now outside RB Global Soccer and that it is in compliance with UEFA's rules. The rest of the soccer world waits to see what happens when the draw for next season's Champions League is announced, since both Salzburg and Leipzig should qualify for the tournament from their respective leagues (Leipzig already has; Salzburg is on the cusp of winning the Austrian Bundesliga).

Salzburg's success in the Youth League should, however, be credited to Red Bull soccer, whether it is convenient for Red Bull soccer to take the credit or not. The club follows the same model as the rest of RB Global Soccer family: a common style of play, influenced strongly by the tactical thinking of Ralf Rangnick (who once was sporting director of both Leipzig and Salzburg, but is now focused solely on Leipzig), implemented across all levels of the club.

The RalfBall approach is the one used by RBNY, RB Brasil, Salzburg, and Leipzig. It has delivered multiple trophies to Salzburg in Austria, as well as the Youth League title to the club's U-19s. It can be credited with Leipzig's immediate success in its first season of top-flight soccer in Germany. In MLS, RalfBalling RBNY won the Supporters' Shield in 2015, and the club's reserve team won the USL regular-season and Cup in 2016. All won playing a recognizably common style of soccer, albeit with variations one might expect from different teams playing in different leagues under different coaching staffs with different operating budgets and constraints.

It is also a system that attaches great importance to younger players, so it perhaps fitting that the first major European title won by a Red Bull club is a youth tournament. And the Salzburg team that lifted this year's Youth League trophy should soon start to contribute players to the club's first team.

Indeed, at least one - Xaver Schlager, who missed out on the Youth League final and semifinal - has started to pick up regular minutes for Salzburg's first team this season. Others, like Amadou Haidara, Mergim Berisha, and Hannes Wolf have made at least one Austrian Bundesliga appearance for Salzburg this year. And the U-19s squad includes one of the more successful players in global youth football this season: Patson Daka won the Africa U-20 Cup of Nations (and the tournament's MVP award) with Zambia in March, and now he is a UEFA U-19 club champion in April.

Red Bull's RalfBall revolution was always going to be driven by young players, and Salzburg's Youth League win is a reminder that RB Global Soccer's ambitions don't end with winning league and cup titles in the countries where it has clubs - it wants international trophies too, and it is figuring out how to get them.