On March 2, 2018 - the day before the new MLS season officially kicked off - the New York Red Bulls finally announced the trade of Felipe Martins to the Vancouver Whitecaps in exchange for Tim Parker.
Felipe has been a stalwart for the Red Bulls under head coach Jesse Marsch. Since joining the team in 2015, he has played 125 games in all competitions for RBNY, starting in 123, and he was a starter in every one of the 100 MLS appearances he made for the team in his three-season tenure. In 2017, he set new club records for single-season starts (43) and minutes (3,921) in all competitions, and tied Eric Alexander’s record for single-season appearances in all competitions (43).
Some consider him almost the embodiment of the current era of Red Bull football. He’s energetic, enthusiastic - even controversial at times. He was a fan favorite, both for his durability and his clear commitment to the team.
But no veteran midfielder is safe at RBNY. Felipe followed the same path as Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan before him: out the door when the team decided it had cover for his position and need for things it could get by offloading him.
The basic terms of the trade to Vancouver revealed what RBNY felt it needed: a proven starter at center-back. In exchange for the Caps’ Tim Parker, the Red Bulls sent away Felipe, a 2018 international roster slot, and $500,000 worth of Targeted Allocation Money (spread over two seasons). Quite a high price to pay for a player who reportedly had told Vancouver he wanted leave, had declined a new contract with the Caps, and who is in the last year of his current deal. Clearly, the Red Bulls really wanted a center-back.
Beyond that immediate and obvious desire to shore up the back-line, Felipe’s transfer raises a number of questions. Some of those questions - How will the team play without its ever-present d-mid? What does the midfield depth chart look like without him? - have already been partially addressed by the team’s last match. RBNY beat Olimpia, 2-0, at home in CONCACAF Champions League without Felipe, so Red Bulls fans have at least 90 minutes worth of evidence for the team’s plan for its Felipe-less future.
The question of why RBNY is so fond of trading starting midfielders for defenders is less easy to answer (part of the return for Sacha Kljestan was center-back Tommy Redding), as are a great many others. But I’d like to focus on one particular thought: what does the Felipe trade mean for Jesse Marsch?
It’s no secret that Jesse Marsch loves Felipe. Indeed, he put some of that emotional attachment on the record when saying his official goodbye:
Felipe has been a big part of our team for the last three seasons. His dedication to this team and club was at the highest level every day. I personally owe him so much for his commitment to this team. Here at Red Bull, we all wish him and his family great success in the future.
Felipe is essentially Marsch’s project player. The pair were first matched at Montreal Impact in 2012, where Felipe was a 21-year-old attacking midfielder and Marsch was a rookie head coach. When he was appointed to run RBNY in 2015, Marsch had Felipe in his new squad within the first month of his official tenure with the Red Bulls. And from the first preseason games he ever coached at RBNY, Marsch had the player he’d deployed as a creative #10 working as a #6 or #8 in the system he was charged with developing in Harrison. It’s clear that Marsch sees Felipe as a versatile midfielder he can stick just about anywhere and have him perform at a solid level in MLS.
So why would the Red Bulls trade their head coach’s favorite player?
Well, RBNY works within a tactical system originated by RB Leipzig’s sporting director, Ralf Rangnick. That system is in place at all RB Global clubs. While the details vary from team to team, the presence of a single, overarching tactical approach allows for the easier transfer of players between RB Global’s clubs. RBs Leipzig and Salzburg generate the most traffic between them, but RBNY participates also. For example, Marc Rzatkowski recently arrived in New York, on loan from Salzburg. When Marsch says “he understands our philosophy” and “his understanding of the way we play is spot on”, he’s talking about the ready-made familiarity with the Red Bull system of play that Rzatkowski brings with him from Austria.
But the RB Global system isn’t just about players; it’s about coaches and technical staff too. Current RBNY assistant coach Bradley Carnell has not worked within the RB Global network before, but he has worked with Ralf Rangnick - and credited his familiarity with the man and his ideas for the opportunity to join Red Bull’s MLS team. Per soccerladuma.co.za back in March, 2017, Carnell explained his move to New York as part of a long-standing connection to RB soccer’s spiritual leader:
It stems from 2001 when Ralf Rangnick was my coach at Stuttgart, and I had one of my best playing stints under him. It was a good time for him as a coach and me as a player. We made it to the UEFA Cup and we maintained a link. In 2014 we reignited our relationship. We’ve been in constant exchanges since then, and now he’s part of the global brand with Red Bull. The Stuttgart imprint is quite big within the brand now.
Further, RBNY’s Head of Scouting, Benjamin Ehresmann, is a former Leipzig employee - and was recently summoned back to Leipzig, though that plan appears to have changed and he remains with RBNY at present.
The development of technical staff capable of moving between the various RB clubs is clearly as important a facet of the overall system as the effort to create a sort of global squad of RB players.
And while RBNY fans routinely speculate about the likelihood of a player from New York being whisked away to the Bundesligas of Germany or Austria by Papa Red Bull, perhaps the American Red Bull most likely to make the jump to one of the European sister clubs is a coach, not a player. Perhaps it is, in fact, the current head coach of RBNY.
Jesse Marsch is currently in the process of making himself one of the best qualified American soccer coaches on the planet. In 2017, he enrolled in two top-level coaching courses: US Soccer’s Pro Course - the highest-level coaching license available from the USSF - and UEFA’s Pro Licence, which is the qualification required to be the head coach of any top-flight European club or any team involved in the UEFA Champions League or Europe League. It made for a busy year, with Marsch forced to travel to Europe occasionally to meet the UEFA course requirements, as well as following the curriculum of the US course, and being the full-time head coach of a team in MLS. But Marsch has got his US Pro Course certificate now, and he should complete his UEFA qualification some time this summer.
How does this tie into the Felipe trade? Maybe it doesn’t at all. But Marsch’s characterization of his decision to do the UEFA course never really made a lot of sense. Last year, he told newyorkredbulls.com:
I always want to better myself in terms of thinking about the game, and this is an excellent chance to see some of the philosophies being taught in Europe. I want to continually improve myself as a coach and pick up lessons or a bit of knowledge that I can bring back and implement.
Can’t fault anyone for seeking to broaden their knowledge and understanding, but the UEFA Pro Licence course isn’t a take-home test, or a little sightseeing that can be done at weekends - not for a coach living and working in the USA. Jesse’s quest for self-improvement meant he would be spending portions of 2017 and 2018 traveling to Europe for the Pro Licence course, at times while the team he coaches for a living was actively engaged with its own competitive season. In Europe, coaches can pick somewhere to do their UEFA licencing courses that minimizes the disruption to their work schedules. But an American coach, living and working in America, who wants to do the UEFA Pro Licence - well, that doesn’t happen very often, mostly because (one assumes) it’s immensely impractical. Marsch had no choice but to suck it up and shoulder the additional burden of travel, homework, and the questioning of his priorities from commentators and fans understandably puzzled by his occasional mid-season jaunts to Europe.
And he put himself through all that because he wanted to better himself? More to the point, Red Bull gave him time off work (and agreed that he should take two top-level coaching badges in the same year; maybe even paid for them, for all we know) simply because he asked? This is of course possible, but it is not the likeliest explanation.
It doesn’t quite add up. What does add up is that a coach doing the highest-level coaching licence UEFA has to offer is interested in coaching at the highest levels UEFA has to offer. Maybe not immediately, but when the opportunity arises. And if Papa Red Bull is supporting a coach in gaining those qualifications - at some cost to the organization, either in money or time or both - then maybe Papa Red Bull is hoping to see that coach contributing at the highest level at one of his European teams.
Indeed, the news of Marsch’s desire to get all the coaching qualifications he could get broke shortly after he had quieted a rumor that he was about to move to Salzburg. All of this happened back at the beginning of last year, and subsequent events have proven the rumor mill wrong: Jesse Marsch did not move to Salzburg, and he is still very much the head coach of RBNY. But the rumor mill is sometimes dead wrong and sometimes merely a little confused. One of the many reasons why it didn’t make sense that Marsch was going to be head coach of Salzburg back at the start of 2017 was that Marsch wasn’t qualified for that position. By the summer of 2018, he will be.
That doesn’t mean he will go take over at Salzburg - the team didn’t need a new head coach in early 2017 and it doesn’t look like it will be needing one this year either. But it does mean that the next time such a rumor rolls around, Marsch will be a much better fit than he was when it first popped up. And there is also, of course, a team in Leipzig that might have coaching needs of its own. Marsch is doing the UEFA Pro Licence for a reason, and if he won’t reveal it, the rumor mill will try to do it for him. Once he’s qualified, brace for every vacant coaching position - first team, reserves, youth teams - at Leipzig or Salzburg to be embellished with a little “Marsch to Europe” rumor campaign.
And RBNY’s biggest outgoing transfers of this off-season are just more kindling to help get that fire started. Back in 2015, when he was first appointed as head coach at RBNY, Marsch watched his new team make a couple of big moves in the transfer market, bringing in Sacha Kljestan and Felipe.
Both players were familiar to Marsch, and it seemed clear that he had sought to have at least a couple of senior guys in his squad that he knew he could work with from the start. This is common practice for coaches all over the world: start a new job by bringing in some familiar faces.
Three years later, both Kljestan and Felipe have been traded away within a month of each other and before the new MLS season officially starts for RBNY.
Those who suggest Kljestan had to go because Marsch wanted to advance players who better fit RBNY’s system of play seem to overlook the fact that Kljestan landed at RBNY because Marsch wanted him at the club. Likewise, Marsch wanted Felipe. And he made both players ever-present in his starting lineups.
In Jesse Marsch era of New York Red Bulls, club played 128 games in all competitions before last night. Felipe played in 125, started 123.— Jonathan Yardley (@jtyardley) March 2, 2018
Last night was 2nd game Red Bulls have played under Marsch without McCarty, Kljestan, Felipe; other was 2017 regular season finale at DC.
Times change, of course. Marsch now knows more about what Red Bull is trying to do with its soccer, and he’s had time to develop and acquire the playing personnel to get the team closer to the RB ideal. Maybe it was simply time for the RBNY head coach to kick off the training wheels he bought back in 2015.
Or maybe Marsch thinks the next phase of his career will be in places where he won’t be able to bring along friends like Kljestan and Felipe. Maybe he’s building a new squad not merely for the season ahead, but for the next head coach of RBNY: a head coach who might prefer to have a solid center-back option over a midfielder who would run through a wall for Jesse Marsch. So Marsch’s personal ties to his squad get severed as he prepares for his next move, and RBNY readies itself for its next head coach.