Following the firing of Chris Armas, the New York Red Bulls have appointed Bradley Carnell to the position of interim manager. The 43-year-old former South African international fullback joined the club as an assistant coach in March of 2017 and has a long and unique history in the game, at both the player and managerial level.
Carnell began in high level soccer with local club Wits University, debuting as one of the youngest ever players in the South African top flight at the age of 16. As a teenager, he led his team to the 1995 BP Top 8 Cup, scoring two goals in the final. He spent a season at Kaizer Chiefs before moving to Germany where he would spend the next twelve years. The Johannesburg native told Xtreme Visual Radio, “[Moving overseas] was my only way into a professional environment,” as the league was semi-professional at the time.
His career abroad included spells at VfB Stuttgart, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Karlsruher, and Hansa Rostock. With Stuttgart he swashbuckling left back won the Intertoto Cup twice and finished second in the Bundesliga in 2003. A brief pre-retirement return to South Africa with SuperSport United ended quickly after the realization that he couldn’t adjust from the more comfortable European conditions and that he wanted to live closer to his family. Throughout the late 90s and 2000s, Carnell was a regular with the South African national team, making 42 appearances for Bafana Bafana, including three 90 minute appearances at the 2002 World Cup.
After hanging up his boots, he progressed through a typical punditry and startup hustle attempted by many former players. He worked as a Bundesliga analyst on South African television, earning praise for his nuanced observations, and was part of a sporting event agency called Perfect Practice. In an attempt to give back to the community and guide South African players to Europe, Carnell established an agency with several former teammates in management positions. But the siren song of the training pitch was too strong to resist.
“After retiring from playing football I had to ask myself what next?” Carnell said. “I got involved with advertising and marketing, but that wasn’t really my niche.”
Carnell took over the soccer team at the University of Johannesburg and was responsible for building the program through using his professional background and stature for heavy talent recruitment. He was an instant success, leading the Hoopoes to a runner-up finish in its first Varsity Cup appearance. The UJ team, composed of unknown players from open tryouts, played “an exciting brand of German-style football” and “outclassed opponents with outstanding displays of teamwork and professionalism.”
During this time, Carnell worked on UEFA coaching courses in Germany which led to a near immediate payoff. Shortly after, he joined the professional coaching ranks in the South African league as an assistant with Free State Stars in December of 2015, a role he held for six months before moving to Orlando Pirates for a brief period. His time in the domestic league appears to have ended bittersweet, as a desire for more responsibility went unmet. Suddenly at another career crossroads, within one year he found himself in America as a member of Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls staff.
At the time, it was viewed as an out of nowhere hire. Marsch had previously chosen to staff his bench with close associates and teammates from his past, almost all MLS lifers. “Bradley brings a tremendous amount of experience from his time playing at high levels in Germany and with his national team,” said the current Salzburg manager in the usual boilerplate statement given at the time. “We look forward to him bringing that perspective to our staff and helping us prepare our team each week.”
But it later became clear that the appointment was a result of a crucial connection Carnell made during his playing days in Germany. During his highly successful spell at Stuttgart, his manager was none other than Ralf Rangnick, the man who until this past summer was the chief architect of Red Bull’s soccer empire. The two “reignited” their relationship in 2014, and, after the completion of some coaching badges, it seemed a no-brainer to bring him into the fold.
“It was the right timing, the right phone call and the next thing I was jumping on the plane and obviously getting the grace from the chairman,” Carnell told EWN in 2017. “They wouldn’t sign anybody who they didn’t have trust, faith and confidence in. I spent many hours on the phone with the guys from New York and their coach and their assistance and later the head himself phoned me and said this is the right man to go with.”
Despite playing as a defender, Carnell’s coaching responsibilities have been geared toward the offensive side of the game. He described his role with Red Bulls as “coming up with little concepts and designs of play to get better in the attacking third and from a build-up phase.” Under the recently-fired Armas the attack has been, to put it kindly, less prolific than in years past.
Like anyone in the profession, Carnell hopes to be granted an opportunity to manage a club, with several opportunities being explored. Recently, he acknowledged there were “one or two things” with European teams that did not come to fruition. His current contract expires at the end of 2020, so should Carnell wish, the coming weeks will be a tryout both to keep the manager position and stay with the organization beyond this season.
It’s highly likely that head of sport Kevin Thelwell has a person or several people in mind for the head coaching position, and that this brief stint is nothing more than stewardship. However, every temporary situation can become permanent if one succeeds at a high enough level. Replacing a cup-winning caretaker wouldn’t be unprecedented, but immediate success would force the club to at least heavily reconsider hiring a new manager.
What the Red Bulls are getting is an interim manager who is a fierce promoter of young talent, with a demonstrated desire to grow their careers. Even when raising awareness of the dangers of climate change he is a proponent of the press and high energy soccer, which carries over from his playing career as an aggressive left back. For more in-depth information on his appreciation for the high press, look no further than his interview with Left Back Football. But if you take away one thing from his career, it’s that both as a player and a coach, he chose to leave his comfort zone in South Africa to take on a challenge abroad and seek out conflict. Compared to moving to an unfamiliar country or uprooting one’s family, running a team for a few months is nothing.
While caretaking is not the ideal situation, it is the first and only chance many assistants receive to move into the rarefied air. In a sense, Carnell has already succeeded by breaking that barrier. He will gain leadership experience and be perpetually mentioned in rumor mills for the rest of his career. It would be foolish to squander this opportunity and overlook his potential as a manager. Ralf Rangnick is a sharp observer of potential talent, so there’s a reason he identified and supported his former player’s journey to New York.
This is Bradley Carnell’s moment. By nature of the interim title, the stakes are low. Success with this deceptively talented roster could create a quick and indelible impact on the club, making the job his for the taking. Even if he’s overlooked for the permanent gig, this is the first step on the road to accomplishing his goal of managing in Europe (and perhaps making a triumphant return to South Africa), armed with a yet-to-be-determined amount of experience with the Red Bulls. A good start would be to keep the Red Bulls pressing and maintaining a high line. As he seems to know, it was pretty successful in the past.