There is no better way to say this, the New York Red Bulls are a dysfunctional organization. In 2018 the team secured the best point total in MLS History and was one badly coached game away from making the MLS Cup Final. In 2019, after returning 9 of 11 starters (Tyler Adams sold to RB Leipzig and Bradley Wright-Phillips with a injury that changed his career), the team made the playoffs but only as a #6 seed with a .500 record (14 W, 6 D, 14 L). They were up 3-1 at halftime in their sole playoff match against the Philadelphia Union before dropping a 4-3 result in Extra Time. Things are not ALL bad at the Red Bulls’ training facility, but there’s a lot to be worried about. Let’s take a look starting at the bottom.
NY Red Bulls II (USL)/Academy (Manager: John Wolyniec)
This is the one bright spot for the organization at the moment. The academy is widely regarded as one of if not the best academy in the country. Tyler Adams is the best export of the academy having played for two seasons with the senior team before being sold to RB Leipzig for $3 million in the 2017-2018 off-season.
John Wolyniec has been the man to lead NY Red Bulls II since they first started playing in the 2015 USL Season. In the 5 seasons the team has existed they have made the playoffs every year and made it to the Conference or USL Finals in 3 out of those 5 years. The team won the USL Championship in 2016 on the back of Ryan Meara’s performance in penalty kicks in multiple rounds.
Wolyniec’s job isn’t to win titles though, it’s to improve players and make them senior team ready, and he’s done a great job at that. That 2016 title team included the following prominent senior players: Alex Muyl, Sean Davis, Derrick Etienne, Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, Ryan Meara. Muyl, Davis, Etienne, and Adams all came up through the academy.
NY Red Bulls Senior Team (Manager: Chris Armas)
Chris Armas is probably the biggest lightening rod in the mess that this organization has become. Armas took over the senior team duties from Jesse Marsch in July of 2018. Before that, both he and Dennis Hamlett were assistant coaches under Marsch after he was appointed head coach in 2015.
When Marsch left the team in 2018 to join RB Leipzig, the Red Bulls sat with a record of 10-2-4 after 16 matches. In the 18 matches with Armas in charge the team went 12-3-3, which pointed to good signs entering the playoffs as Armas kept the train rolling, even getting off to a bad start losing to New York City FC in his first match 1-0 when his team has a man advantage. The playoffs in 2018 was a sign of bad things to come however.
They started off with a 1-0 loss at #5 seed Columbus Crew SC but bounced back with a 3-0 home win and all seemed right. This set up a #1 vs #2 match-up with Atlanta United. The Red Bulls traveled down to Atlanta and lost 3-0. The prevailing opinion is that Armas out coached himself as Atlanta had never been able to beat NY’s high pressing style, which the team abandoned in that game. The team got a consolation goal in stoppage time of the return leg and was bounced out of the playoffs with a 3-1 aggregate loss.
2019 looked promising at the start. The team sold off Tyler Adams but still had 10/11 starters from the best ever MLS Regular Season team (until BWP got injured early in the year). There was no reason to suspect they couldn’t make MLS Cup after they started the year with a 5-0 aggregate win in the CONCACAF Champions League. The wheels quickly fell off with a 6-2 aggregate loss to Santos Laguna where Santos scored 4 goals in 10 minutes during the second leg. The MLS Season started with a draw against Columbus, a should not have even been 4-1 close win over the San Jose Earthquakes and then immediately losing the next 3 against Orlando City, the Chicago Fire, and Minnesota United. The team ended the season with a 14-6-14 record and being bounced out of the playoffs by the Union after holding a 2 goal halftime lead.
The 2019 season was marked by significant injuries to be sure but the selling point since 2015 was building through the Academy and under Armas it looked like younger players weren’t ready or were regressing. The biggest example was Aaron Long’s form after returning from the Gold Cup. He was the 2018 MLS Defender of the Year but didn’t look anywhere close to it.
The drop-off was sharp for the Red Bulls as a whole. In 2018, the team scored 68 Goals, only let in 33 (league best), for a +29 goal differential (league best). In 2019 goals scored dropped to 53 (-15 vs 2018), 51 goals were conceded (+18), leading to a +2 goal difference (-27).
Of course, the Manager isn’t to blame for everything. He can only do so much with what he is given. That brings us to Dennis Hamlett
Sporting Director (Dennis Hamlett)
Hamlett was promoted to Sporting Director in February 2017 after serving as an assistant coach for two years under Jesse Marsch. His biggest action that year was bringing in Fredrik Gulbrandsen (anyone actually remember him?) on loan in March from RB Salzburg, only to be sent back in June.
The 2017/2018 off-season saw him pull the trigger on what is probably his best acquisition when he acquired Kaku for a $6.25 million fee. Aside from that though, Hamlett hasn’t made any significant moves to improve the club. He never used any of the $400,000 in Allocation Money the Red Bulls received for Dax McCarty. In the 2018/19 off-season he traded Sacha Kljestan to Orlando City for Tommy Redding and Carlos Rivas, two players who are no longer with the team. Orlando also sent $150,000 in allocation money as part of that trade, again that money was never spent.
His worst decision so far seems to be buying Mathias Jørgensen from Danish club Odense Boldklub. Hamlett paid a fee of $2.5 million for the forward with all signs pointing to the youngster being a strike partner/replacement for an aging Wright-Phillips. He appeared in 5 matches before being loaned down to NY Red Bulls II in 2019. Jørgensen did appear 21 times for NYRB II with 11 goals scored, so it’s not a total loss but he’s failed to live up to the hype in his first season with the team.
Hamlett did sell Tyler Adams after the 2018 season for $3 million but that fee is a joke since NY and Leipzig are part of the global Red Bull Soccer organization. Transfer Market listed Adams market value at $4.95 million at the time of the sale.
This off-season seems to have a been a particularly bad one from Hamlett so far. Yes he brought Josh Sims back in on loan, but that deal ends midway through the season. He did get Mandela Egbo from 2. Bundesliga side SV Darmstadt 98 but that was necessary after selling Michael Amir Murillo to Anderlecht for a reported $784,000 fee (below his apparent Market Value of $1.21 million) and the best left back in MLS Kemar Lawrence (also to Anderlecht) for $1.21 million (Transfer Market lists his value at $2.2 million).
In the middle of this, Hamlett bought in goalkeeper David Jensen from Dutch side Utrecht in an apparent move to test if Ryan Meara, who has been waiting to be the regular starter again since the 2012 season, is up for the job he’s earned through NY RB II and US Open Cup appearances. With the holes pretty much in every level of the formation, why focus on the one spot that seems to be in reliable hands? The moves over the few years makes you wonder if the organization actually cares about winning any titles.
Head of Sport (Kevin Thelwell)
Kevin Thelwell, formerly with Wolverhampton Wanderers, was named the Red Bulls’ “Head of Sport” on February 3rd to oversee all sporting aspects of the organization. Thelwell is not a cause of the dysfunction in the organization, but his presence is a big sign of it at the Red Bulls.
In probably a fitting moment of timing, the same day that Thelwell is announced as the Head of Sport, the Red Bulls News Network ran an exclusive piece detailing off-field issues with Kemar Lawrence dating back to Marsch’s tenure. It’s hard to imagine that if Lawrence has been a problem for years that this is just coming out right? Not really. If Jesse Marsch was good at keeping his house in order, then this kind of news would never seen the light of day. It’s telling that this news broke a few days after Lawrence left (and when Thelwell was announced).
It’s most likely of course that Lawerence was the trouble that the piece suggested. If that is the case though, why didn’t Hamlett/Armas do something about it sooner? Were they powerless or did they not give it the attention it needed? If he was that much of a distraction, great player or not, wouldn’t you want to remove a negative influence? The timing of the information being brought public and it coinciding with Lawerence’s sale a few days early could suggest that the front office was trying to deflect from the fan reaction of the sale and the $1.25 million price tag.
If this is a sign of how things are behind the scenes, then the assumption has to be that Thelwell was brought in to right the ship because Hamlett/Armas can’t/won’t do the job needed to succeed. If you have strong leadership in place, you don’t need to bring someone in to supervise.
Administrative General Manager (Marc de Grandpre)
Marc de Grandpre doesn’t deserve any real heat for the actions that take place on the field, but he does for the fan experience.
Red Bull Arena was opened in 2010 with a seating capacity of 25,000. Last year, a significant portion of the north end of the second level had been blocked off. The tarps make sense because attendance is down, but the team said that the sections were going to be converted into a standing area/bar this off-season but no news has come out yet. With a month left until the season, it’s very possible nothing will change. Could we see the tarps expand if the attendance continues to drop though?
The issues aren’t only in the stands. For years there have been complaints about the concession offerings in the stadium. A few new options have been provided over the year but the original stands, mostly staffed by Delaware North, still produce long lines before the game and at halftime, clogging up the concourse.
The ticket sales are also an issue with many fans not being told about the refund and auto-renewal policies on their season tickets, especially when they wanted to cancel after how last season ended. Fans are not allowed to cancel their auto-renew until mid-season. So for 2021, make sure you cancel around June 2020 if you don’t want to keep those tickets. One could see how the team wants to make sure their sales agents are prepared but if they can’t handle a person wanting to cancel something they haven’t paid for yet, then why even pay the agents? Isn’t part of a sales agents job to handle unhappy customers to try and get them to stay? Why bother employing the agents if you can’t trust them to do their job? Why not go 85% - 100% online and allow fans to pick and choose the experiences they want?
The Red Bulls are a dysfunctional organization. They don’t seem to really care about the product on the field. They don’t seem to really care about the product off the field. If they can’t care for those things, then why should fans spend their money at Red Bull Arena?