Any New York Red Bulls fans out there who also follow Chelsea might be feeling a bit of deja vu lately about 2012.
It was in March of that year that the English giants dismissed manager Andre Villas-Boas when his overthinking of the squad’s tactics and alienation of key players had resulted in months of adequate-but-turgid results that left the team slipping behind in the league but still alive in both the FA Cup and Champions League. With only two months remaining in the season and the quick installation of a committed new boss impractical, the club installed Villas-Boas’ assistant Roberto Di Matteo as caretaker manager. The Italian would go on to just about salvage Chelsea’s entire season in that tiny window by winning both of the aforementioned cup tournaments, paradoxically obtaining the club’s long-desired European prestige at the close of a season that was otherwise a complete misfire.
Gerhard Struber has an opportunity to do an uncannily similar feat for New York in an even tinier window over the next month now that he has finally taken over a talented squad left adrift by his predecessor Chris Armas. On Thursday Struber was introduced as the team’s new head coach in his first press conference with sporting chief Kevin Thelwell, with the team just two days away from their opening match of the MLS Cup playoffs against Columbus Crew. Like Di Matteo when he secured Chelsea’s double, Struber has been in place as the club’s new manager for almost two months. But unlike Di Matteo, Struber has been prevented until now from taking immediate control of the team and training due to immigration paperwork and covid-19 quarantine procedures.
Thus he shares most if not the entire reclamation of this Red Bulls season with New York’s interim head coach Bradley Carnell, who has remained in charge after Struber’s hiring in early October and competently steered the team into the playoffs on the back of only one loss in its final seven regular season games. Thelwell implied in the presser that league protocols (requiring a quarantine period for any person entering the professional “bubble” that teams are attempting to maintain) were the only reason for the delay in his fully taking over the team, rather than an acceptance that this unusual season should meet a fittingly unusual end with Struber hovering over as Carnell continued to handle the team on field in the playoffs.
It was stated in the press conference that Struber did begin directly training the team this week, so he will not be a complete stranger to the squad. But the decision to have the club’s new manager begin his tenure with such a high stakes moment certainly raises questions. While the Di Matteo dream is quite possible, it is far more probable that the club has now put Struber in the position of having his very first impression on supporters be a repeat of the club’s most eternal disappointment. Instead of allowing Struber to enter 2021 with a clean slate with 2020 having finished in fruitless-but-encouraging circumstances under an interim, the Austrian would begin his first full season bruised fairly or not as yet another playoff failure. Indeed the question becomes what is more at risk: the team’s chances in the playoffs, or Struber’s chances at starting on the right foot with a demanding fanbase?
The decision additionally feels cruel to Bradley Carnell, whose efforts in such a trying time have been crucial in allowing the club to maintain composure in months that were awkward at best and highly challenging at worst when one considers the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. Life certainly isn’t fair and pro sports even less so, but a statement made by the interim coach on Twitter appeared to show a man deeply prideful and invested in the success of the team going into its final stretch of the season. It is encouraging that Carnell will at least remain on the bench with Struber in an assistant role, and perhaps will remain the club that headhunted him three years and two management regimes ago.
But despite the awkwardness and potential hurt feelings, one must also consider the downside of continuing to have Struber wait in the wings while his new club barrels into a potentially-winnable tournament. An increase in confusion among observers (some national publications have mistakenly credited Struber rather than Carnell for the team’s turnaround) and decline in the positive momentum brought to the club by Struber’s expensive acquisition from Barnsley has become palpable in recent weeks. It is entirely fair for fans to question whether a club that allows its expensive new manager to tour Brazil instead of get fast-tracked into the technical area is fully committed to competing. Additionally, there is even the possibility of gaining an on-field edge as opposing managers will be facing a coach who is yet to provide any MLS game tape to scout. While still strange for the reasons stated above, the abrupt installation of Struber for the most important games of the year could end up being a morale-boosting statement of winning intent and the Austrian’s own confidence in his abilities.
It is not surprising Struber and the club are betting on themselves with such a move. Kevin Thelwell emphasized in Thursday’s press conference that Struber was their outstanding candidate “from day one” of the coaching search. He is still less than two years into senior management career, but Struber has already proven able to produce results quickly in his brief stints in European play with AC Wolfsberger and in staving off relegation with once-doomed Barnsley. Despite the fact that the Red Bull ethos that Struber is heavily schooled in may not be especially designed for the playoff success this club so craves, his decision to take the wheel for MLS Cup as his first move in charge implies that he and the club think they’re finally capable of winning anything in their path.