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Take it easy on Denis Hamlett

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The Red Bulls sporting director has frequently been his own worst enemy, but is also a victim of Red Bull’s confused approach to its New York outpost in recent years

Columbus Crew v Chicago Fire Photo by Brian Kersey/MLS via Getty Images

It may seem petty to re-hash two years after the fact, but Denis Hamlett never actually said he expected an “immediate impact” out of then-newly-signed striker Mathias Jørgensen.

Before embarking on a largely-fruitless two seasons in New York, mostly playing in the reserves before making a quiet loan exit to AGF Aarhus at the end of last year, Jørgensen’s signing was the great hope of an otherwise barren offseason in which the only signings made by the New York Red Bulls had been MLS waiver flyers such as Amro Tarek and Marcus Epps. But what the club hoped would serve as narrative-turning moment of transfer success now lives on as a moment of infamy due not, as commonly thought, to comments by Hamlett himself, but likely due to a headline - “Hamlett: Jørgensen Ready To Make Immediate Impact” - used in a paraphrased club media statement released with the transfer announcement.

Despite some throwaway responses about the Danish teen having “tools” that could potentially help the team early on, Hamlett’s actual quotes that week in February 2019 emphasized that Jørgensen will require seasoning with the reserve team in USL and that it “remains to be seen” whether he would live up to his over $2 million price tag. But nevertheless, the idea that it was a cocky gaffe by Hamlett stuck - perhaps more easily becoming legend because it’s simply too easy to toss into what has been a series of unfortunate moments in his tenure as the Red Bulls’ sporting director. And in the midst of it all, it’s unclear he really asked for any of it.

When the now 52-year-old Hamlett first came to the club in 2015, it was as one of the most experienced on-field coaches in the American professional game. An early protégé of Bob Bradley, Hamlett had been a key assistant on the successful late 90s Chicago Fire teams that included a young Jesse Marsch in midfield. Hamlett went on to be a reasonably successful head coach with Chicago in the late 00s, reaching two conference finals despite locker room friction that eventually helped lead to his release. He then settled into an elder statesman role, guiding Marsch as the training ground architect of his early managerial jobs in Montreal and Harrison.

It wasn’t until a series of power plays by Marsch that Hamlett found himself in the front office role that has gone less than smoothly over the last four years. Since assuming the sporting director void left by the strange departure of Ali Curtis in early 2017, Hamlett has become a ubiquitous lightning rod for fan criticism and seen his professional reputation bruised with an array of ill-fated transfers, unpopular cuts, and administrative pratfalls. In the last week, he has seen perhaps the most acute heat of this entire unplanned front office career after the reports that his informal approach to renewing Kaku’s contract last year has potentially cost the club a transfer fee on top of an already-endured public relations disaster.

It would seem intuitive to join the many calls throughout the fragmented online forums of Red Bulls fans for Hamlett to finally be let go from his position. After all, he’s already effectively been replaced in his broader technical leadership role by a head of sport and much of his duties have presumably been made redundant. But a simple discarding of Hamlett would ignore not only the challenging position that the Red Bull corporate structure has put him in over recent seasons, but also the important role he has played and still seems set to continue in New York.

You don’t even have to be a particularly informed Red Bulls fan to know the case against Hamlett as the club’s front office chief. Hamlett’s career as sporting director has been a combination of serving as this whipping boy for roster moves guided by forces outside of his control as well as unforced errors exposing both his lack of suiting for the technical aspects and more importantly Red Bull’s lack of interest in supporting him. From opening his tenure with the taking the slings and arrows from the unpopular trade of team captain Dax McCarty, to communication and registration fiascos with Anatole Abang and Muhamed Keita, to the aforementioned dodgy Jorgensen presser, it has often seemed like Hamlett can do no right in the eyes of the fanbase.

SOCCER: SEP 16 MLS - Redbulls at Revolution
Seen here during his days as an on-field coach with the Red Bulls, Denis Hamlett has seen mixed results in an often-challenging stint as the club’s sporting director
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But the overarching decision that led to this sequence of events starts with Hamlett being left such a position in the first place. The circumstances of his ostensible promotion from assistant coach to the sporting director role were certainly unusual if not deceptive. Following a power struggle with Jesse Marsch that caused veteran league rules guru Ali Curtis to leave the sporting director role, the enigmatic powers that be in the Red Bull corporate leadership decided not to recruit a new technical expert but rather to allow Marsch to hastily install one of his on-field assistants in the most important front office position. While club statements defensively claimed that Hamlett had indeed simply leapfrogged his boss Marsch to now have the keys to the entire club operation, informed observers could see he had no long-term mission in the front office beyond conducting the whims of his longtime colleague.

For a stretch of time this wasn’t a problem, as catering to the needs of an ambitious, focused coach like Marsch is a fairly user-friendly scenario for a novice sporting director. But after Marsch made another power play a year-and-a-half later to leave New York for coaching roles at Red Bull’s European clubs, Hamlett’s lack of administrative experience and Red Bull Global’s apathy towards the New York operation he now was tasked with steering resulted in a messy few seasons for the club.

On top of the bullet list of transfer mishaps listed above, Hamlett’s lack of administrative nous and a broad professional network led to situations like the club’s academy director position staying empty for almost a full year and head scout Benjamin Ehresmann abruptly and acrimoniously leaving the club for an eventual role with rivals Philadelphia Union. A presumed lack of trust in Hamlett’s abilities from Red Bull’s European-based emissaries used to dealing with Marsch likely resulted in a less-open pocketbook for transfers fancied by the New York chief.

Indeed for over three years the longtime training ground guru Hamlett served in this previously-unfamiliar front office role with next to zero administrative help from Red Bull Global outside of occasional visits to New York by Ralf Rangnick. The lack of any backup plan for the sporting director position likely prevented any consideration of Hamlett taking over New York’s head coaching role upon Marsch’s departure in 2018, leaving the club set for the ill-fated tenure of the far less experienced Chris Armas.

Eventually this confused, contradictory arrangement was resolved in a confused, contradictory manner early last year by a situation in which Red Bull New York now has both a sporting director and a head of sport. The latter is now former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Welsh FA executive Kevin Thelwell, who has surely appreciated that Hamlett’s notorious status among the fanbase has served as insulation against criticism of another underwhelming season of transfers. Indeed ever since this re-shuffling of the front office, this site had avoided even discussing Hamlett in the face of continued ire. The fact that Hamlett remained such a negative buzzword in the fanbase seemed to speak to a troubling lack of awareness that Red Bull had recognized his shortcomings and he had indeed been demoted.

But events of the last few months have shown Hamlett to still be a bigger force in the front office than previously thought - for both good and bad. Hamlett was conspicuously kept onboard by Thelwell following the dismissal of longtime professional colleague Armas and Hamlett appears to still play a key role in much of the team’s technical strategy. OaM referred to him as “first team sporting director” in discussion of the Kaku situation last week, because in lieu of this week’s reports as well as comments by Thelwell increasingly seeing himself as the manager of the club’s academy and recruitment structures on top of first team duties, it is clear much of the first team’s administrative affairs are still in Hamlett’s hands.

There’s reason to believe Thelwell kept him around for a reason. Despite the current contract mishap, the former Wolverhampton executive stated last summer that Hamlett was crucial for helping him keep on top of the often complex rules and regulations guiding MLS squad construction. And while Hamlett’s lack of ties to Europe hampered his effectiveness in a solitary sporting director role, his network in North America is unparalleled within the current Red Bull Global sporting umbrella. The Costa Rican-born Hamlett remains a key conduit to Spanish-speaking countries and agents, and his general background knowledge of the American professional landscape is sure to come in handy for Thelwell and head coach Gerhard Struber in ways that will never make it into a media report.

Another less important reason but one that should not be irrelevant in the “no dickheads” club that Thelwell is trying to build is that Hamlett is a nice guy. He has had a long career in the game in which he has earned the trust and respect of some of its most accomplished figures in this country. He is known to mingle and chat with fans in the stands at Red Bulls II games in Montclair, and is often a sounding board and source of guidance for many of the team’s younger players.

In the misleading headlines from the Jørgensen press conference two years ago, the inexperienced Hamlett was victimized not only by the austere approach taken by the Red Bulls during his tenure as sporting director, but also the defensive posture the club often takes in portraying the stated austerity. Maybe Hamlett did misspeak after all in a strained attempt to give the fans and press what they want to hear from the chief of a club many feel has neglected its obligation to be one of the league’s glamour clubs. Maybe this month’s Kaku drama is entirely his doing rather than a rare perfect storm with an unscrupulous agent.

But if that fault should lie with anybody in the club structure, it should be with the ownership that put him in the unfamiliar position to make such mistakes rather than allow him to thrive in the on-field role he was hired for in 2015 or focus on the recruitment role has shifted to since the hiring of Kevin Thelwell.

Even further, one must consider the possibility that, with the hiring of the experienced and connected Thelwell and a new array of technical staff, Red Bull has indeed quietly corrected many of Hamlett’s administrative shortcomings without needing to make an example of him. Perhaps the most terrifying scenario of all for a frustrated fanbase in a society obsessed with retribution and punishment is that right now there is no one to blame.