Perhaps one of the more self-serving theories espoused by now-departed Red Bull soccer guru Ralf Rangnick, a veteran Bundesliga coach with Stuttgart and Schalke among other teams, was that the manager rather than a star player should be the highest paid person at a club. Indeed Rangnick valued the position enough that for both the 2015-16 and 2018-19 seasons, the jet-setting executive of the global soccer empire also moonlighted as the day-to-day head coach of RB Leipzig rather than pass the job off to someone he couldn’t trust.
While he didn’t appear to have the same urgency about the situation with his Red Bull club in New York when he allowed the largely unproven Chris Armas to take over the managerial role in 2018, it is clear through the hiring of new sporting chief Kevin Thelwell and Armas’ eventual replacing that an evaluation has been slowly but surely made. The head coaching position had been identified as a key problem for a New York squad that went from setting a league points record to a limp 12th-place finish in the span of one year under Armas’ watch, and a drastic shake-up of the team’s technical structure was taken to fix it.
But to be sure, the solution Red Bull has come to is not an aloof Hans Backe camping out in America on the downswing of a journeyman career or a naive local hand like Armas or Mike Petke assuming the job by default. Much like his new boss Thelwell, who left a Wolverhampton Wanderers operation quickly becoming a European power, newly-hired New York head coach Gerhard Struber is an energetic young hotshot on the global football scene who didn’t have to come here.
While at surface level Struber has most recently found himself near the bottom of the English second division with Barnsley, a closer look reveals one of the most talented and sought-after young managers in the sport. New York becomes the second team in the span of a year to pay a seven-digit transfer fee to acquire Struber, who reportedly had the eye of other teams in the English leagues as well as the Dutch Eredivisie after saving Barnsley from relegation in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. Even the shadowy Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz was summoned to help recruit the talented young Austrian, who first built his coaching career in the cutting edge academy and reserves program at Red Bull Salzburg and is considered an avid adherent to the organization’s tactical ethos.
Indeed on his way out the door, a confident Struber hit out at Barnsley’s supposed lack of ambition - and it’s hard to argue he wasn’t working with one of the Championship’s very lowest payrolls in the small Yorkshire mining town. In contrast, he comes into a New York team fresh off a decade near the top of Major League Soccer and lush with high expectations again.
For all the hand-wringing that often appears in the New York fanbase about the lack of household names in the Red Bulls squad, the squad Struber inherits is not one undermanned relative to the rest of a salary-capped league. Much of the record-setting 2018 spine remains including American internationals Aaron Long and Tim Parker and veteran attackers Daniel Royer and Kaku, both currently riding a surge of form under interim manager Bradley Carnell. The past year has seen Thelwell and new scout Paul Fernie bring in a series of pedigreed European signings including David Jensen, Mandela Egbo, and designated played Dru Yearwood to bolster positions that had become thin, and more signings to Struber’s liking are likely in the coming offseason.
Additionally Struber walks into a conference and league (currently topped by largely anonymous sides such as Columbus, Orlando and Philadelphia) that has become suddenly more open for the taking of an ambitious team. With the departure of innovative and successful managers such as Gerardo Martino, Gregg Berhalter, and of course Jesse Marsch in recent offseasons, MLS has found itself in a drought of teams with coherent tactical plans beyond old stalwarts such as Brian Schmetzer and Greg Vanney making lemonade out of salary cap lemons - the job Struber’s predecessor Armas thought he was doing.
In a league caught near the middle of the food chain in global transfers, where even the most expensively-assembled teams feature often glaring wrinkles, having a program and sticking to it (rather than muddling your approach in search of a fallacious “plan B”) pays massive dividends on and off the field. Frequently-rotated squads have an intuitive sense of how to play in any scenario and scouts are able to narrow down the types of players they seek rather than gambling with allocation trades and SuperDrafts. Unless you consider Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins the sort of A-listers the team is begging for now, Jesse Marsch did not need blockbuster signings to immediately set the Red Bulls on the course for two regular season titles. There is little reason to believe a coach of Struber’s pedigree won’t feel capable of similar achievement if not more, especially given his intimate familiarity with the Red Bull technical approach.
Ralf Rangnick might have left Red Bull this summer, but the hiring of Gerhard Struber proves that his principles have not left the organizational braintrust. After a two-year gap where plans were abandoned and the team resorted to taking what the league gives them, the system is the star again at Red Bull New York.