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The 2021 Red Bulls have to be a win-now team

Reports that Gerhard Struber is eyeing outcasts and youth prospects from old stomping ground in Salzburg raises familiar concerns

Fulham v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

While Major League Soccer settles into its offseason, newly-installed New York Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber has been making the media rounds in his native Austria. A great deal of pride has been expressed from the locals for Struber in his attempt to make a name for himself overseas.

There’s been additional praise for Struber from those who have played under him at his previous clubs (including one former player who stated he would “move to the third division of India” to play for Struber again), leading to expected questions about whether the former Red Bull Salzburg academy and reserves coach was looking to bring some of his old charges over to the New York squad.

Into this chatter entered current Salzburg sporting director Christoph Freund, who mentioned that Struber has his eye on several players in his squad and that there is “always a surplus” in the Salzburg squad. Speculation from Salzburg circles online included players such as veteran Japanese playmaker Masaya Okugawa and 17-year-old center back Bryan Okoh.

As regular readers may know, this site generally avoids the contention that a team with three regular season titles in the last decade and $15 million spent on transfers over the last three years is a forgotten stepchild of its corporate parents. Even more emphatically, this site excused basically all of 2020 as a more or less fake season.

But it must be made clear that there cannot be another season of rebuilding and experimentation on the fringes of the Red Bull network. The 2021 New York Red Bulls can and should be in win-now mode.

This is a fanbase that has now endured a purgatory-like two-and-a-half years in which the team’s thrifty attitude towards squad-building was no longer backed up by adequate results or performances. Though Struber is only just now beginning his career in New York, Red Bulls sporting chief Kevin Thelwell has had close to a year to mold the team to his principles, principles that he claimed to be front and center in his choosing of Struber as his head coach.

The only way a team of teens and spare parts from Salzburg would be acceptable in the current context would be if the club were going all in on an extremist Ajax-style youth-oriented approach in which the team is expected to run all opponents off the field. Given that MLS regulations make arranging such a team nearly impossible, it is important that Struber sign players that will help him win now. There are already plenty of young players in the side (including once-promising youngsters now in the wilderness such as Omir Fernandez and John Tolkin) for Struber to flex his development muscles with.

However in this respect it is also worth warning Struber and Thelwell that the stock for the borrowing of Salzburg veterans is also at perhaps an all time low in New York. Marc Rzatkowski was released this month after becoming an aging symbol of the malaise in Armas and Hamlett’s squad planning, while Samuel Tetteh made practically no impact during a short term loan in New York at the end of this past season. Combined with the continued sour aftertaste of the disjointed tenures of figures like Omer Damari and Fredrik Gulbrandsen, more Salzburg scrap heap signings would leave New York fans free to make more cynical assumptions about how their team is being set up.

It wouldn’t just be a competitive mistake to allow 2021 to be a season of continued trial-and-error instead of the confident assertion one would expect from a manager with Struber’s price tag. It would be a massive risk spiritually with a fanbase weary of being asked for patience over the last two years and, in the sense of the ultimate MLS Cup trophy, over two decades.

Perhaps signing trusted players such as his Liefering and Barnsley left back Killian Ludewig is a crucial part of ensuring the effectiveness of Struber’s tactical program that should be respected. But Struber must prove his management skills by tempering his clear love for tactical innovation with the need to immediately placate a fanbase he has been propped up as a savior for.

Unlike most managerial hires, the $2.5 million acquisition of Struber should be one of the final pieces of a revamp started by Thelwell almost a year ago. Struber must resist some of his and Red Bull’s impulses to realize that 2021 must be about winning rather than building.