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Dear Columbus Crew, You should hire Ali Curtis

Really, you should.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Dear Columbus Crew,

Do you mind if we leave it “SC”? It seems a little superfluous and this is intended as little note to a friend, so perhaps we can dispense with the formalities.

Congratulations on being saved, or saving yourself - or being most of the way toward that goal anyway. What’s more, you’re at the center of attention. Everywhere we look, there’s the Crew: talking about a brand new stadium...

...and bailing out USMNT by providing its new head coach...

...and making the biggest splash of the MLS off-season to date by selling Zack Steffen to Manchester City in a deal that even worked in a six-month victory lap so fans in Columbus can see Steffen play a few more times before he heads off to the big time.

The latter is particularly impressive since Gregg Berhalter’s departure for USMNT left you without a head coach and sporting director, so you’re a little shorthanded but the work is still getting done.

For any club in MLS, you’re having a great off-season; for a club that many thought would have ceased to exist right now - and at one point MLS seemed to be actively rooting for that outcome - it’s an extraordinary and perhaps necessary statement of Columbus’ place at the heart of the Great American Soccer Project.

And Once A Metro was particularly interested to learn - from the New York Red Bulls’ beat’s resident scoop-whisperer, Kristian Dyer - that you’ve been talking to Ali Curtis about that vacancy at sporting director.

Good move, Columbus. You should hire that man.

We see you’ve also been talking to Bruce Arena.

And if you can’t entice Ali to Ohio, that’s not at all a bad fall-back. Arena knows more about building dominant teams in MLS than pretty much anyone alive or dead. But he’s also mostly done that working primarily as a head coach - and reports suggest you’re ready to give coaching responsibilities to Caleb Porter.

Also, Arena hasn’t won a trophy in MLS since 2014. Not so long ago, for sure, but Ali’s successes are more recent and more reflective of the way MLS operates now: he helped put together the New York Red Bulls’ Supporters’ Shield winning squad of 2015; in 2016, he watched the RBNY reserve team win the league and Cup double in USL; from a greater distance, he watched several of those USL-winning reserves help RBNY to another Supporters’ Shield in 2018. You want to win stuff in ways that don’t involve building your team around David Beckham, Landon Donovan, or Robbie Keane - you want Curtis, not Arena.

Word from The Columbus Dispatch is that’s your current plan: Porter as head coach, Curtis as sporting director, Arena as a general manager watching over the whole operation. Fair enough.

But if your plan is to sandwich a sporting director between the rock and the hard place of those two personalities, then hopefully you’ve realized Curtis is your ideal candidate.

If not, please accept this small reminder of his qualifications.

YourBall: the Ali Curtis way

First, if you’re really setting Curtis your sporting director up to shuttle between the wants and needs of a GM and a head coach: Ali has done that sort of thing, and he did it very well.

The most pervasive narrative that attached itself to Curtis’ tenure as sporting director of New York Red Bulls - his first and, to date, only appointment to such a position - is that of the “300-Page Plan”. The Plan certainly exists: Curtis talked about it a lot, and it featured prominently in Brian Straus’ profile of RBNY’s controversial (at the time) new SD for Sports Illustrated in April 2015:

Two more things caught the eye upon entering the office. The first was a large, framed photograph of Thierry Henry sliding on his knees, fists in the air as he celebrated a goal for Arsenal.

The other was a massive three-ring binder lying on the desk. Its cover featured the New York Red Bulls logo and read, “Confidential Property of Ali Curtis.” There, in the plastic and paper flesh, was the only copy of The Plan.

The Plan, as Straus and just about every other reporter covering MLS or RBNY at the time believed (and a few still seem to believe), explained pretty much everything that happened to the Red Bulls in 2015 and since: a man with a Plan came in and turned the club into what you see today. Or as Straus put it:

Part vision, part roadmap and part manifesto, the binder contained, in detail, the DNA sequence of the club that Curtis and Austrian owner Red Bull GmbH intend to build.

To be fair to Straus, he got a lot closer to the probable truth of Curtis’ situation than most covering RBNY in that period, and he at least had the good sense to include the hint that Curtis wasn’t a lone visionary, forcing his ideas into being at Red Bull Arena. That half sentence - “that Curtis and Austrian owner Red Bull GmbH intend to build” - includes a sort of slightly forced concession to the point that Papa Red Bull had more influence over what was happening to the New York Red Bulls than most reporters were willing to accept.

Indeed, the narrative of Curtis and his binder acting as a sort of irresistible force for change on the hitherto uncaring absentee ownership at RBNY barely survived even the profile Straus wrote on the subject for SI.

Throughout the piece, for every effort to attribute the changes being implemented by Curtis to his binder full of ideas, there were little points of information dropped to suggest very strongly that change was coming regardless.

For example, the dramatic coaching change that set the tone for all that followed - Curtis’ seemingly ruthless sacking of head coach Mike Petke and near-immediate hiring of Jesse Marsch as replacement - was revealed by Straus to have been on RBNY’s mind for months prior to Ali’s appointment:

[Firing Mike Petke] surprised few around MLS—Red Bull management had sought interviews with at least two opposing coaches, Portland’s Caleb Porter and Columbus’s Gregg Berhalter, last summer.

Another of Curtis’ great achievements for the Red Bulls - setting up NYRB II as the club’s pivotal talent incubator in USL - was built on worked started by his predecessor at RBNY, Andy Roxburgh. Indeed, Roxburgh initiated several important changes at the club that helped push it toward the new identity Curtis unveiled in 2015. As he told OaM’s Aaron Bauer, the integration of the Academy with the professional side of the club was really started on Roxburgh’s watch:

The first thing to me was the Academy was vital. And they had a great reputation and the trouble was there was no home. When I came there I was appalled, they didn’t know from one day to the next where they would be training, and so this was another advantage of the new training facility.

It was built only for the first team but almost within the blink of an eye I made sure we also got youth training facilities and the new locker rooms were built for them. It’s their home now too. So we made sure the Academy was fully integrated with the coaching staff and also with the young players.

Roxburgh even initiated RBNY’s first contact with Jesse Marsch:

In the case of Jesse Marsch, I mean he’s a good guy. I actually interviewed him believe it or not 2 years ago when we were looking for an assistant. And at the time I was very impressed and I said I hope you get a job as a first team coach sooner rather than later, this was 2 years ago.

And ultimately, Roxburgh’s greatest contribution to the project might have been his recognition of his own limitations:

I think they made a wise move in bringing in Ali Curtis because I must admit it was quite negative [the reaction], to me as an outsider, the MLS rules the salary cap the traveling all these things were quite complicated for someone like me, and I think bringing in someone like Ali Curtis, is clearly a smart move.

Curtis himself told Straus his appointment had a lot to do with his perceived ability to get things done in MLS:

Their belief about the way to achieve success has changed, and I think they have placed a greater priority on really bringing in a team of folks that understand this league and have been around this league and understand the nuances, the coaching landscape, the youth development landscape and the union and CBA landscape.

A quote from Jesse Marsch in the same article framed his appointment as head coach as part of a plan put in place by RBNY’s ownership, rather than Curtis - who Marsch described as being more the man executing a plan than the man who brought the plan to the club in a three-ring binder:

It’s a shift that was being made. I think their attraction to me was that they felt I was a guy who was going to come in and, through the grassroots, from the bottom up on the soccer side, help make this thing better...They felt like it was time to invest in the infrastructure of the organization and the people in this organization and try to build a stronger foundation. Ali’s doing a really good job of that in terms of taking all the resources and the good people that are involved here and tying all the loose ends together so there’s a consistent, strong vision.

Straus’ piece itself could barely sustain the effort to frame Curtis as battling both RBNY’s fans (who rather famously objected to their club’s abrupt and inadequately explained change of direction) and owners on behalf of The Plan. In the front half of the profile, Straus describes Curtis’ intent to make regular journeys to Red Bull Global Soccer’s European capitals in search of backing for his ideas:

Curtis will fly to Europe approximately once a month to meet with Red Bull counterparts in Salzburg or Leipzig, optimistic that the resources and ideas he’ll find there are eclipse any potential hassle resulting from foreign ownership.

By the end of the piece resources and ownership support were no longer a concern:

Resources are not an issue. Curtis has what he needs to implement The Plan, and he expects to do more hiring in the coming months.

“Because they aren’t spending the big DP dollars, now they care less about what’s going on in New York? I can tell you from the inside and discussions I’ve had with people who’ve been here for 10 years that they’re putting more resources into how this team operations on a daily basis then ever,” Marsch said.

What was really happening, as gradually became apparent over the months that followed - and [shameless plug alert] as summarized by Huan Nguyen for Once A Metro in October 2015 - was an alignment of RBNY with the plan that transformed RBs Leipzig and Salzburg. Not Ali Curtis’ plan at all - unless his 300-page opus was basically a dissertation on Red Bull Global Soccer - but that of Ralf Rangnick, who was appointed sporting director of both RBL and RBS in June 2012.

Everything that defines the way RBNY is currently structured - its particular flavor of high-tempo, high-pressing tactics on the field; the focus on developing young players rather than buying in established stars; the integration of tactical and coaching plans across every level of the club: it was all foreshadowed by the plan Rangnick put in place at the European RB clubs.

That’s pretty much what Jesse Marsch told Straus, in another quote that somewhat undermined the idea that everything RBNY was doing came out of a binder on Ali Curtis’ desk:

There’s been a shift in terms of how we do things on a daily basis, so it becomes something that’s more about the entire organization, the group, then it’s about any one individual. That’s in line with what they do in Europe, and I think it’s also in line with what’s successful in MLS.

It certainly became a model for success in MLS. The re-booted Red Bulls won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield and topped the 2016 Eastern Conference standings, and the reserve team won the USL regular-season and Cup titles in 2016. When Curtis left in 2017, the team had a down year, but still made a run to the US Open Cup final. And, of course, when Marsch left for RB Leipzig to work with Ralf Rangnick more directly, RBNY closed out the second half of 2018 with a (points) record-breaking run to another Shield.

With or without Ali’s binder, the team has been very good since it transitioned to its present model.

None of this should diminish Curtis’ achievements at RBNY. If anything, it should highlight the point that the job he really did for the club was harder than many thought. He didn’t charm Papa Red Bull into giving him carte blanche to transform the Red Bulls of New York; he took on the task of implementing the transformation Papa wanted, and making it work in a context for which it was never intended: MLS. And he supported a newly appointed head coach along the way, furnishing Jesse Marsch with the signings he identified as necessary to change the culture and tactics of the first team.

Adapting RalfBall to MLS, in a way that was still recognizably meeting the objectives of the plan’s originators in Europe, seems a more difficult task than simply getting Papa Red Bull’s blessing to do whatever one wanted with RBNY (which, as it happens, is sort of what Rangnick got from Papa back in 2012).

In 2015, Ali Curtis took over a half-started project backed by an apparently determined ownership in Austria that wanted to see the plan through quickly, regardless of the shock to the club and its fans. Ali Curtis handled that assignment, including the wrath of a justifiably enraged segment of the fan base, professionally, efficiently and successfully - so much so that even his departure from the project didn’t stop it from running.

If he could handle that task - and the billboards and rage that came with it - he can surely handle mediating between the visions of Caleb Porter and Bruce Arena.

There’s very little evidence to suggest that the 300-Page Plan contained anything specifically about high-pressing or any other particular feature of the RalfBall philosophy. What it did clearly establish - at least to Papa Red Bull’s satisfaction - is that if you’re looking for a sporting director with the specific understanding of MLS and the broader understanding of the American soccer landscape to make top-to-bottom changes to a US club that align with a particular tactical and strategic vision: Ali Curtis is your man.

His 300-Page Plan wasn’t RalfBall, it was arguably a little better than that: it was YourBall - a guide to how you will get the club you want if you hire Ali Curtis.

But wait, there’s more.

He gets his man

You are looking for a sporting director, Columbus, and you may not really want the full-bore sporting direction Ali Curtis can provide. And that’s fine: not every team is trying to connect itself to a global soccer project bankrolled by a billionaire beverage salesman. Maybe you just want a guy who can get the deals done to put the players Caleb Porter or Bruce Arena would like in your squad.

Good news: Ali Curtis is that guy.

Back to the Straus piece for SI - the Rosetta Stone for deciphering Ali Curtis’ talents: the article highlights two of Ali’s more celebrated deals. First, the trade that brought Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins to RBNY:

Ali told me, ‘What players do we want?’ I told him, ‘Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins. Those are two guys who would make our team better right away,” Marsch said. “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.

As you may recall, in landing Kljestan, Curtis outmaneuvered the guy you want to be his boss, Columbus: Bruce Arena.

There’s another aspect of the deal that doesn’t get mentioned as much: it wasn’t a great trade. To get the means to acquire Kljestan and sign Felipe, Curtis had to engineer a trade with Montreal Impact, and that trade included sending Ambroise Oyongo to Montreal. The move was a shock to Oyongo, who effectively went on strike for a while as he tried to get his contract with MLS voided. It also left RBNY with a problem on the left-side of the field: Oyongo was (and is) a very talented player, who looked set to take over the Red Bulls’ starting left-back, left-wing, or really any position with “left” associated with it, for years to come. The move unbalanced the roster, leaving a significant gap to be filled in the starting lineup that hadn’t been there before Curtis went chasing after Kljestan and Felipe to keep Marsch happy. A trade that strengthens one part of the squad and weakens another is, at best, a wash.

So Curtis got the two players his newly-appointed head coach most wanted, but also gave himself a new headache: the team needed high quality reinforcements on the left.

The 2015 season started with RBNY basically stacking the roster with left-sided players in the hope one would work out. In the end, there were two: Kemar Lawrence turned out to be the Platonic ideal of a RalfBall left-back, and Mike Grella became a fan favorite on the left wing. And the Red Bulls won the league.

Not the last time Curtis made magic happen in the transfer market. Straus’ SI piece also highlights his contribution to the drafting of another player Marsch wanted: highly-rated Leo Stolz, who could easily have been the top pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft but for the fact most teams had the impression he wasn’t interested in playing in the league. Marsch knew different; Curtis did the necessary work to see that the risky draft pick was converted into a signed player.

Stolz didn’t work out for RBNY and was gone after a year playing for NYRB II in USL. But all trades involve the risk that the player acquired just isn’t going to work out as hoped or expected. Part of a sporting director’s job is to compensate for those mis-steps with fresh boosts to the roster as required.

In early 2016, the team’s pre-season center-back bets had not paid off at all. Injuries and form issues saw Jesse Marsch occasionally forced to resort to playing Kemar Lawrence at CB - a move that mostly just made the team weaker at both left-back and center-back. The Red Bulls lost six of their first seven games. Curtis made a move at the end of April, signing Aurelien Collin from Orlando City.

It was a good move on paper: Collin was experienced but not exhausted - he was 30 when the trade was made; playing under Peter Vermes at Sporting Kansas City, he’d established himself as an elite MLS CB in a system not unlike RBNY’s free-wheeling high-press; he cost the Red Bulls a fourth-round draft pick. Observers were quick to note Collin was carrying a high salary (over $500,000 for 2016) which is what Orlando was keen to off-load - but Paul Tenorio reported Curtis had somehow negotiated for RBNY to only pick up half that obligation for the rest of the season.

The team got one point from the first two league games Collin played as a Red Bull, but lost only twice more for the rest of the regular season. The season was turned around, RBNY topped the Eastern Conference standings to at least claim an CONCACAF Champions League place out of the campaign - a place that was ultimately redeemed in 2018 after CONCACAF changed the scheduling of its showpiece club tournament. The Red Bulls’ thrilling run to the semifinals of CCL 2018 owed a lot to Collin and the canny sporting director who signed him to the club for a fourth-round draft pick and half the salary Orlando didn’t want to pay.

For this observer, however, the best illustration of Curtis’ ability to bamboozle the transfer market was in his acquisition of back-up ‘keeper Kyle Reynish in early 2015. The Red Bulls only needed a back-up ‘keeper for the 2015 season because of another smart piece of business by their sporting director: he loaned NYCFC Ryan Meara in exchange for one of the club’s picks in the 2014 Expansion Draft - RBNY got Sal Zizzo for nothing at all, in effect, since Meara landed back with the club for 2016 (and beyond; he’s still with RBNY) after his loan to NYCFC ended. That ingenious transaction did mean the team needed another reserve ‘keeper, and Curtis landed the eminently qualified Reynish from Chicago Fire in exchange for a draft pick the Red Bulls had already traded away in 2013.

Columbus, I’m sure you’ve interviewed candidates for sporting director who promised they would scour the transfer market to win the club something-for-nothing deals. You can’t have interviewed many other than Ali Curtis who actually have engineered a trade that cost his club nothing because the thing he traded away wasn’t there to be traded.

And on top of all that, there’s one more very good reason you should hire Ali.

He cares

You’ve taken a beating in the last year or so, Columbus. #SaveTheCrew galvanized an important section of your fan base and the community that surrounds your team, but surely there were many others alienated by the revelation that MLS was more than happy to facilitate the club’s relocation to Texas. Once the Crew is definitively saved, then will begin the task of rebuilding the trust and loyalty that was abused by your previous ownership and the league you fought so hard to stay in.

Curtis might seem like the wrong man for that job, given that he’s most famous for setting RBNY on fire and at war with its own fans within two weeks of joining the club. But as Once A Metro has tried to explain, Ali was quite likely just doing the dirty job assigned to him as part of the terms of his employment.

The You-Fired-Petke saga’s most extraordinary moment was the Town Hall held just 10 days after Petke was ousted and Marsch was appointed. Someone at the club decided that facing the fans’ fury head on, in a more or less public setting (attendance was restricted and the event kicked off with a futile and pointless effort to declare the meeting “off the record”). Curtis, Marsch, RBNY GM Marc de Grandpre, and senior player Luis Robles faced questions from season ticket holders. Not all of the fans present were angry, but the angry portion of the fan base was well represented.

But Curtis promised there would be more Town Halls. He told Brian Straus that dialogue with fans was an important part of what he wanted to build at RBNY:

I’m not sure it’ll be exactly like [the first Town Hall] but we’ll do that sort of programming throughout the year … Events where we can speak directly to [fans], where they can speak directly to us.

And he kept his word: there was another Town Hall the following February - in which, among other things, Jesse Marsch and Luis Robles attempted to deny the existence of RalfBall.

There hasn’t been one since, perhaps because Curtis quit RBNY in early 2017.

OaM doesn’t know for sure, but it would suggest that the Town Hall meetings came straight out of Ali’s binder. In one of his first interviews after joining RBNY and firing Mike Petke, Curtis outlined his vision for the club to Empire of Soccer.

EoS laid out a bullet-pointed list of the key elements of Ali Curtis’ Plan:

Discussing mandates on the number of homegrown players signed each year.

Discussing set minutes to be allocated for homegrown players within the first team.

Bridging the gap between the young academy and first team through the implementation of a USL Pro side. “Having a platform that is linked directly to Major League Soccer is very important,” he insists.

Setting bars for success on the field, not just on a year to year basis. “Everybody wants to win MLS Cup,” he explains. “Everybody wants to make the playoffs. What does that mean for the Red Bulls on a 12 month cycle, a three year cycle, on a five year cycle?”

If there are mandates for homegrown player signings and first-team minutes at RBNY, or ever were, they were never loudly communicated to fans. Having a reserve team in USL was on the Red Bulls’ to-do list when Andy Roxburgh was running the show. And whatever three-year or five-year plan there might have been was never announced.

The lack of visible follow-through on most of those ideas and the disappearance of Town Halls speak to the one clear failure of Curtis’ tenure at RBNY: he never really turned the club into the plainspoken center of its community he said he wanted it to be. And Ali seemed to really want that - as he told Eos:

The community aspect, Curtis explains, stems from a club wide effort at transparency. “What we need to do in a sophisticated way is outline bold statements of who we are and who we want to be and then create measurable goals so everyone in our community knows who we are and what we are trying to achieve — from staff to players and fans,” he said.

Repeatedly:

My vision has always been to build a lifelong connection between the clubs and community that transcends the sport.

He liked that “lifelong connection” line a lot:

It’s always been trying to create a single identity that is clear and transparent not just for our players, but for our staff, our fans and our community. It starts with that identity and our vision, which is to build a lifelong connection between the club and community that transcends the sport.

All of that from just one interview.

A couple of months later, he was still on-message with Brian Straus:

When I look at Red Bull, I look at it as a tribe. Tribes live off the land—what’s around them. From a Red Bull standpoint, how can we touch our community and live off it in such a way that we’re embracing that community? Bringing in the right players, creating different ways to engage so that we finally create this identity as the New York Red Bulls. All of our decisions are dictated by that identity, by what we are as a tribe.

Transparency is not a word often associated with Red Bull, whether it is slinging soda or sports. Nor is the organization known for embracing community, at least in the sense of being particularly sensitive to fans’ concerns: RBNY and RB Salzburg were created by simply buying another team and rebranding it, attempting to obliterate the histories of the acquired clubs at the same time. Ali’s ideas about transparency and community never really seemed a great fit with Red Bull.

And the event which may have precipitated his departure from RBNY would seem to have been one at odds with his stated ideals.

On January 12, 2017, the Red Bulls’ focus was on the MLS Player Combine and SuperDraft in Los Angeles. Curtis reportedly left the team’s delegation in California that day due to “unforeseeable circumstances” and returned to New York. After about a month of silence in which it was painfully obvious he was negotiating an exit from the club, it was announced Curtis and RBNY had parted ways.

Not the end one would have predicted for the sporting director who was hired for his 300-Page Plan and its vision of a club built on transparent and close communication with its fans.

Although it took a month for RBNY to confess it had let Ali Curtis go, it only took four days after the sporting director’s abrupt departure from the team’s SuperDraft preparations to understand what might have made him feel he had to leave. On January 16, 2017, the Red Bulls traded captain Dax McCarty to Chicago Fire. The deal was executed suddenly - so suddenly McCarty himself was blindsided by it.

It was reminiscent of two decisions executed by Curtis: firing fan favorite Petke without warning, and trading away Ambroise Oyongo without prior word or consultation with the player. Both those things happened early on in Curtis’ tenure at RBNY. At the time, perhaps it was easy to justify the way those deals went down as the necessary work to clear the way for the implementation of a new vision for the club. But two years later, to treat a senior player and fan favorite with the same callous disregard shown Petke and Oyongo: such behavior looks less the exception and more the rule. All clubs have to make hard roster and personnel decisions; they don’t all routinely enrage their own players, staff, and fans.

Maybe Curtis just didn’t want to be associated with a club that was going to keep on conducting its business that way. He doesn’t seem to have been much involved in the Dax trade - McCarty himself said he didn’t believe Curtis had been responsible for the decision or its execution.

Or perhaps it was just coincidence. Curtis has never really said what specifically caused him to walk out on RBNY in mid-January 2017 and apparently never look back. In interviews since his dramatic departure, he’s been what he’s always been in interviews: professional and optimistic about the future.

Ultimately, whatever the reason, Curtis left RBNY and he’s seeking new employment. If what you are looking in Columbus is a sporting director who can manage the complexities of MLS (and USL) with the best of them, will not shy away from the hard decisions when they have to be made, but also believes strongly in embedding a club in its community: Ali Curtis is your man.

Hire Ali Curtis, Columbus.

Sincerely,

Once A Metro