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The most important offseason in New York Red Bulls history...but probably not

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Putting the latest attempt to overhaul the operations at Harrison into context

Barnsley v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

The New York Red Bulls can be broken down into six historical eras. There were the two MetroStars periods, under the ownership of John Kluge and Stuart Subotnick from 1995 through 2001, replaced by the Anschutz Entertainment Group stanza that lasted until 2006. Red Bull took over the club that year, ushering in the first of four grand plans in an attempt to dominate the soccer world with a seamless integration of corporatism. This was followed by the post-stadium days of splendor running 2010 to 2014, only to be supplanted with a Jesse Marsch austerity generation that petered out upon recognition that perhaps the Red Bull Salzburg manager is better served as a tactician than a human resources officer.

The Red Bulls are now in version 4.0. This is the most ambitious overhaul of the club, an attempt to turn the MLS outpost into a true incubator of talent as seen at the company’s treasures in Leipzig and Salzburg. There have been past stabs at adapting the grand project, a proportional attempt to streamline academy development and becoming a finishing school for well-regarded young talent from across the Western Hemisphere and Africa. The results were middling, as most of these players washed out with the reserves as the first-team largely continued clinging to veterans likely to neither secure a tidy profit nor claim MLS Cup, outside of a few notable cases.

The ongoing winter transfer window will set the tone for the project’s success or at the very least set it off on the right foot. Head of sport Kevin Thelwell is a full year into his job and should be well-versed in all of the league’s infamously Byzantine roster rules and regulations. Recently hired manager Gerhard Struber has a defined tactical style and is assumed to hold sway with ownership, both ideal qualities when attempting to build a squad.

While the past few months may not have provided flashy signings, there has been an emergence of something equally valuable in American soccer: three storylines that drive the discourse until the tank hits empty. The Red Bulls are in the early days of a rebuild, regardless of a refusal to publicly acknowledge as such. The foundation is being established, upon which a structure can be built. Success or failure will determine whether new architects are procured or the plan is quickly scrapped for an updated version, equipped with the confidence of a fresh convert but burdened by the ever-swinging pendulum of the past.

I. SEAD HAKŠABANOVIĆ AND THE BACK-UP SIGNING

Soccer - FA Youth Cup - Third Round - Liverpool v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Anfield
Second-year Red Bulls sporting chief Kevin Thelwell is feeling expectations steadily rise as his overhaul of the club takes shape
Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

The Red Bulls struck out and struck out hard on failing to sign Swedish-Montenegrin playmaker Sead Hakšabanović. IFK Norrköping stuck to its guns, not accepting less than the desired transfer fee. As the door slammed shut, a sense of dread filled the air, as the departed Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra remained in purgatory.

Whether or not the reported extra million should or should not have been paid is irrelevant. The gaping hole in the formation for another creative player has not been filled. The “same old Red Bulls” observational refrain echoes as the club appeared to once again not spend enough money to strong arm change, a rash conclusion that ownership is cheap and the front office inept. The notion is not true. A significant offer was made, as it was for several other players, but the pursuit became too strenuous. On a long enough timeline, an expensive transfer can yield a pyrrhic result, raising the demands for other players and destroying market values. However, shrewd business dealings with the confidence to walk away will never be cause for fist pumps from supporters.

The 4.0 version of the Red Bulls has continued the record of transfer market misses, more publicly than ever. When the assumed primary target does not arrive in Harrison, the secondary must be acquired lest panic or purposeless signings be made. Throughout the club’s history, these moves have been a mixed bag.

Take for example last summer’s rejected bid for Ivan Toney. The former Peterborough player is dominating the English Championship with Brentford, validating the scouting department’s eye for talent but doing little else for the Red Bulls. Unable to close any other targets, a late-window loan saw the arrival of Samuel Tetteh. The once-heralded Ghanaian international had a mediocre scoring record and a concerning injury history relegating him to the outskirts of Salzburg’s team picture. The two benefits of his elapsed tenure were the short length and the paltry cost.

A pass through the opposite sliding door goes back to the 2012 season. Following a fruitless multi-year pursuit of Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká, the club came to the realization that he was probably never coming to New York. A source shared the constantly negotiated deal was “dead,” cemented by the contract release of his inutile brother, perpetually in royal fosterage Digão, by mutual consent.

Within a few weeks, the club rapidly shifted gears, signing Tim Cahill from Everton when the opportunity arose. According to then-sporting director Erik Solér, the move came together quickly and was arguably a direct response to Kaka’s rejection. The media was intrigued, fans were unsure of this seemingly reactive transfer for a 32-year-old attacking midfielder, for which the Red Bulls paid a reported $1.5 million transfer fee and $4.6 million salary.

Cahill surpassed all expectations in his first full-season at the club. Despite the oh-so-clever jokes about “activating the fan base” and derisive comments mocking his late-tenure contract negotiations, he was productive and topped the team’s scoring charts. Without his 11 goals, the Red Bulls do not win the 2013 Supporters’ Shield, the first meaningful silverware to fill the dusty trophy cabinet. A rushed grab into the transfer mystery box delivered greater results than most well-measured signings that came before. The front office responsible for his acquisition was not around to taste the fruit of its gamble.

The failure to sign Hakšabanović, and previously Toney, is a rough start to an attempted rebuild. Both misses will not define the next few years, as the transfer market is a nebulous machine, spitting out unknown results no matter how precise the input. The next move could be right or wrong, but there has to be one. Time is ticking for the club to change course and make a back-up signing.

II. THE FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

New York Red Bulls v Seattle Sounders FC
Michael Amir Murillo is one of several recent Red Bulls talents left confused by the ostensibly selling-minded club’s handling of their transfer interest
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Clubs face an eternal question of their place in the market as the power imbalance constantly shifts. MLS has struggled to determine the proper time to sell players, sometimes squeezing onto players so hard that the transfer fee slips through the arms and slides away. Ever the abundant buyer and shrewd seller, many transfer targets have failed to depart for other pastures. This window featured the intense boil of a long simmering teapot tempest that has yet to be taken off the stove. After the club failed to sell on a timeline Kaku deemed appropriate, he took matters into his own hands.

Leaving aside issues of contract extensions and the manner in which involved parties are informed of their activation, it is reasonable for a player to view MLS and the Red Bulls as a stepping stone to a bigger or financially munificent destination. Both league and club tout themselves as factories of development, molding young talents into complete marvels worthy of global attention. This contrasts with the espoused belief of serving as a destination and backed by the disbursement of high transfer fees and salaries. This attempt to thrive as both the English Premier League and the Eredivisie produces an awkward wavelength and could frustrate those expecting more amenable negotiations.

For Kaku, the opportune time to move was probably not now to Al-Taawoun, but two years ago to Club América. He had performed at a high level – at least for half of a season – before an indisputably bigger club called with a higher bid. When the offer was presented to the Red Bulls, it was not accepted and instead met with a significantly higher counter-offer. Regardless of structured valuation and allocation money, the conveyor belt, on which he had likely been pitched, was not working.

The Red Bulls are well within their rights to hold players to contracts, accepting and rejecting overtures as they see fit. But that means nothing to players who did their job and attracted interest from a more prestigious outfit, only to see their natural professional paths stalled. These upwardly mobile talents come to New York for a reason, which is assuredly not to stay permanently. If the club intends to establish itself as a regional power, then a record of regular transfers must be established. Sometimes selling is the better choice than holding onto a player for too long.

The seeming confusion surrounding Kaku’s situation is vaguely similar to that of Amir Murillo. The Panamanian fullback was a star for the Red Bulls but saw his playing time diminish at the end of his tenure. Perhaps a reason for his decline was his belief of an unfulfilled expectation, said to be the most frequent cause of life’s conflicts.

Murillo believed he was on a path to Salzburg. He told Knack that when initially signing for New York, the intention was to climb the Red Bull ladder. Following his breakout all-star season, the call from Europe did not come. What remained was his belief a synergy move was never discussed, which could have been the cause of some confusion and dissatisfaction. The eventual transfer to Anderlecht was a meek exit, for such a low fee that the Belgian club has built an entire data-backed strategy upon replicating similar value purchases.

New York must determine the space it occupies in the market and how this standing is explained to potential signings. While the club is free to enforce contracts, players are joining with the stated desire and belief they will be allowed to leave, something they’re not divining on their own. When not being allowed to depart, a pattern is developing that perhaps the best way to secure a move is through force. There’s a failure to communicate at some point of transfer dealings, and the club needs to figure it out lest the drama continues.

III. WHERE ARE WE? WHEN ARE WE?

New England Revolution v New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls made a statement of short-term intent with their decision to hang on to Aaron Long in the face of European interest last month
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The third major storyline of the transfer window did not involve an incoming move but the reported denial of Aaron Long’s loan. The club would be foolish to get rid of the talented defender who continues to perform at a high enough level to attract continued attention from overseas, but his departure will come soon enough. While he will remain with the Red Bulls for at least six more months, his status is temporary, as is every player’s on a long enough timeline.

The 2021 offseason rebuild kicked off with the trade of Long’s backline partner and friend Tim Parker to the Houston Dynamo. Partial salary dump and likely a tacit acknowledgement of a failure to fit tactical needs, the Red Bulls have almost finished deconstructing what was once the league’s best back line, although the heralded crew never quite met expectations. How it must feel to watch one’s teammates shipped away with little regard for years of service or current ability, based on decisions largely formulated by age calculus or a reported push for a move. Long is forced to remain with the club despite knowing his own string is running out as the age of 30 approaches. After a series of veteran departures, the shock has worn off but the growing apprehension continues.

The Red Bulls can and should do as they please any player under their purview. The results – three Shields and the second-best overall MLS record for over a decade – are self-evident. These discarded veterans have other ideas, individually expressing the belief that maintaining an experienced core would increase playoff success.

As the club shifts gears to becoming more focused on youth and development, Long takes on a role that resembles camp counselor. His responsibilities include setting a good example and making sure the cabin doesn’t burn down. At the end of the summer, everyone will leave. The kids will head out into the bigger, more challenging world, young enough to climb the ladder. The elder defender will either stick around to guide the new class or awkwardly be asked to leave, his remaining transfer diminished to nothing by the passage of time.

When Long was the subject of past transfer inquiries, the assumption is the Red Bulls demanded more than prospective suitors were interested in paying. At 28, his chances for a move to Europe exponentially decline with every elapsed transfer window. The club has no obligation to grant a move to a player or undersell a fee, but expecting to glean a substantial sum from the sale for a veteran runs counter to every principle the organization claims to hold.

Later career Salzburg and Leipzig players are often not sold for fantastic sums of money, instead departing their clubs for a reasonable fee – sometimes nothing – after years of service. The business model is reliant on selling the younger high-flying prospects, not clinging to or making a tidy profit on veterans. If anything, the miserly refusal to let them leave has a tumble-down effect, preventing the insertion and development of spry neophytes, in turn denying the transfers of tomorrow. A butterfly trapped in a cage in Harrison prevents future hurricanes in the market.

Balancing regular production of talent and competition or silverware is a constant challenge, a delicate tightrope walk practiced in Ajax and seldom elsewhere. The current transfer window inspires little confidence in emulating vertical integration, with the club forced to choose between development and winning. Although that assumption has been incorrect in the past, most notably in Jesse Marsch’s first season. Not only did the 2015 Red Bulls claim a Supporters’ Shield, but that year was also the emergence of Matt Miazga and Kemar Lawrence, both eventually sold for a profit.

The continued refusal to allow a reliable starting center back to leave is a smart decision from a pure tactical perspective. However, if individual transfers do not exist in a vacuum, then singular roster moves do not either. He knows his departure is coming, having seen the ugly ejection play out several times. Allowing him the chance to leave on his own terms in exchange for some likely meager financial restitution would have signified a true rebuild, but, as is the refrain, the Red Bulls plan to compete on all fronts in 2021, a challenge that is more likely to be met with Long than without.

***

Sport is meant to be a passionate exercise, evoking joyful exuberance and healthy anger. The business of the professional game constructs boundaries that surround these emotions, which introduce reason and add context. A club does not conduct business in a closed market and should not be judged on the successes or failures emanating from a single window of time. While glory can be grasped in an instant, the pursuit is typically a long road, particularly after a slow decline caused by aimless negligence. There is a logical process behind every step that was or not taken, with hindsight only partially illuminating what would have been the correct course of action.

The Red Bulls are not quite failing in this transfer window. Showing up and putting forth effort is worth something, even if the results are more hopeful than sure-fire. The next move has the potential to be the best one, an academy player or unheralded signing could be a future star. The new version of the club is currently uploading, awaiting public consumption. If there are too many bugs, then another developer will be hired, patches will be made, or the project will be scrapped. It would not be the first time.