One of the first steps of the legendary Bill Shankly’s revolutionary tenure as manager of Liverpool was clearing the weedy, pebble-strewn surface of the club’s Melwood training ground. As mesmerizingly detailed in Red Or Dead, David Peace’s mildly-fictionalized novel about the Shankly years on Merseyside, the visionary Scotsman - who saw the upkeep of a pleasant workplace as crucial to ensuring a dignity for the club’s players to live up to - spent his first training session sixty years ago gathering sacks of rocks and broken glass with his staff while the players jogged. It wasn’t until just last month that Liverpool moved out of the Melwood complex to a new £50 million facility in Kirkby, with the opening serving as a poetic bow on the new trophy-winning empire built at the club by current manager Jurgen Klopp.
After years of training on schoolyards and NFL astroturf, the New York Red Bulls made a huge step into the world of modern soccer and towards self-respect as a club when they opened their own training facility in June of 2013. The 15-acre complex located in the semi-rural Morris County suburb of East Hanover (though occasionally referred to as nearby Whippany) features four fields, a lounge area, a gym, a cafeteria, locker rooms, and office facilities. The state-of-the-art center received an upgrade in 2017 including an additional field and a new building for academy operations.
But while the once-flashy facility was ahead of its time in this country and remains a valuable home base for the club’s many teams, it’s no longer considered the standard as recent years have seen both expansion clubs as well as the old guard around MLS investing heavily in expansive gleaming edifices to house professional and academy squads. In addition to the material content of the facility, its location on the suburban fringe of the metro area has surely surprised at least some Red Bulls players expecting their day-to-day lifestyles in New York to be in the shadow of skyscrapers rather than strip malls.
Despite the relative newness of the training center, the club has been continually exploring an alternative, even before and during the building of the East Hanover facility. The Red Bulls initially announced plans to break ground on a training center in 2007, signing a “15-year lease with options” for the current land in Morris County. In 2010, the Newark suburb of Kearny was considered a potential landing spot, with the club reportedly considering the purchase of 20 acres. The location was still being pursued the following season, but then-chief executive Erik Stover cited “zoning issues” as a setback.
Last year, Kristian Dyer reported that the Red Bulls were “exploring possibilities for a new training facility” because “the current site is growing a little crowded.” “Multiple new sites” were being considered across northern New Jersey, including one “15 minutes from [the] current training grounds.” Significant upgrades were also discussed, including the space for “six or seven fields” and larger amenities.
At the time, Dyer reported that the Hanover lease would elapse “in the next two, three years” (presumably now one-to-two years), which is in line for a 15-year contract agreement that reportedly began in 2007. If there is to be a new facility, then a move is likely on the immediate horizon. Rumors and innuendos are already making their way into the club’s media discourse. On a recent episode of Seeing Red! The New York Soccer Roundup, the creation of a new training center was discussed, with a familiar town mentioned as a possibility.
“There’s been talk about the evolution of the training center to literally move possibly to Kearny and to build a bigger, better training facility,” said host Mark Fishkin. “The New York/New Jersey area, as we all know, is challenged for space and they’re not making any more land. And you can’t just go further out into the country in the densest state in the union. So, [there is] more to come there for sure.”
Kearny presents an interesting option, as it’s understandable why the club has been interested in the location for over a decade. A traditional hotbed of talent occasionally given the moniker Soccertown, USA and situated next door to Red Bull Arena, the town’s accessibility to New York and other parts of New Jersey would be an upgrade over the decidedly isolated East Hanover. Finding enough space could be an issue, but the negative impact of a difficult commute cannot be overstated from a youth recruitment and general mental health perspective.
Red Bulls head of sport Kevin Thelwell has experience working at an organization undergoing an upgrade to infrastructure and facilities. While serving as director of coaching education for the Football Association of Wales, he helped oversee “a massive forward leap for Welsh football” with a major part being the development of the state-of-the-art Dragon Park training facility. He also served as the academy manager at Wolverhampton, a club that overhauled its facilities enough to achieve hard-won Category 1 status under his leadership, which could bode well for future youth integration and prioritization at a hypothetical training facility.
Thelwell’s task with maintaining the quality of the Red Bulls’ facilities parallels much of his broader task with the club. After a brief stretch following the opening of Red Bull Arena and the administrative tenures of Andy Roxburgh and Ali Curtis in which New York’s facilities and multi-layered reserve and academy structure made it arguably the most built-out club in the country, a vacuum of expertise and leadership in recent years have seen the organization lose grasp of this cutting edge. As Thelwell plots the club’s future, establishing a home base closer to the city and stadium rather than maintaining the long-term backup plan in East Hanover would go a great length towards setting the bar the club hopes to meet in decades to come.