A year ago today on September 4, 2020, Chris Armas was dismissed as head coach of the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer.
After observing weeks of flat performances from Armas’ teams during his first season as chief executive in New York, head of sport Kevin Thelwell made the biggest call of his young tenure days after a particularly dire loss to DC United on a late Erik Sorga goal. The decision to move on from Armas after two years in which the team’s performances had consistently declined was met largely with the approval of the fanbase, a sense only enhanced in recent months by the Long Island native’s even more disastrous tenure at Toronto FC.
But at the moment Armas was fired, a decision Thelwell said was based on “fundamentally, results” following the DC loss, the Red Bulls were a game under a .500 record and sitting in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. Under Armas replacement Gerhard Struber a year later, the team is doing well…worse, frankly.
With the Red Bulls currently sitting in 12th place (though with multiple games in hand due to weather postponements) and toting a 6-4-10 record, Struber currently risks breaking the club’s decade-long playoff qualification streak. But perhaps more importantly, the team’s continued sluggish form under Struber risks marking the start of his tenure, one predicated by Thelwell on the club’s ambition to improve upon Armas, a distinct turn backwards.
It would be reasonable for outside observers to expect a mob of Red Bulls fans to at least start shaking the rust off their pitchforks in reaction to this state of affairs. Yet the calls for Struber’s head are somewhat faint, a muted reaction from a knowledgeable fanbase that illustrates an understanding of the challenges faced by the Austrian as well as the ambition signified by the decision to clear the way for him a year ago.
Recruited for a $2 million transfer fee from English second division side Barnsley after a distinguished career in the Red Bull Salzburg academy and reserve system, Struber is the centerpiece of Red Bull’s most overt attempt yet to connect New York with the rest of the corporation’s clubs in both tactical identity and strategic planning. While front office chief Thelwell has been reorganizing the club’s academy and reserve structure over the last year to grease the skids for more Tyler Adamses and John Tolkins, Struber has been tasked at first team level with balancing a renewed emphasis on developing hungry-but-unrefined young talent from the academy and abroad with the need to make New York as prestigious and prominent on their domestic scene as its siblings in Salzburg, Leipzig, and increasingly Bragantino are in theirs.
Even on a level a bit narrower than such a broad long-term plan, the context of Struber’s results thus far is colored by sweeping change to the current squad’s personnel. It has become apparent that the decision to fire Armas was at least partially based on an assessment that the window of opportunity for the squad Armas had helped Jesse Marsch build was over and that the roster needed a deep fix. Remaining stalwarts from the 2018 Supporters Shield team such as Alex Muyl, Tim Parker, and Florian Valot have all been moved on, while no less than twelve incoming senior signings were made during the last offseason - only to largely miss the preseason coalescing period due to covid-related visa delays and a series of cancelled friendlies.
The positive contrast from the club’s state a year ago further exists on a public relations level. Struber has excuses for losses, but (save for an poorly-conceived attack on the refereeing following a recent match in Montreal) they are nothing like Armas’ characteristic complaints about time wasting from other teams or hand-wringing about the opponents’ supposed top talent. Struber’s mantra, one that has become somewhat monotonous as form has dipped, is one of seeing “next steps” in a process, even when his young team drops a result. With recent post-match comments explicitly saying the team needs one or two more transfer windows to turn the “dream” of trophies into a tangible goal, Struber speaks like a man with one eye constantly on the future and playing soccer management’s infinite game rather than futilely trying to go 1-0-0 week-to-week like his predecessor.
Despite the challenging circumstances and Struber’s more ponderous approach, the team was also in perfectly decent form until being rocked by an injury crisis on the heels of the June international break. Though veteran United States international and club development posterchild Aaron Long went out with a season-ending Achilles injury, the team’s contending form under Struber in the spring didn’t truly snap until weeks later when the remainder of the club’s depth chart bottomed out.
While marquee midfielders Cristian Cásseres and Dru Yearwood have been sidelined in recent weeks with what Struber has described as vague fitness issues, key leaders such as Daniel Royer and Sean Nealis as well as growing young center back Andrés Reyes have missed almost the entire summer. Struber has lamented the injuries and their impact on his ability to rotate the squad and find appropriate tactical looks week-to-week, and the team’s crash in form certainly correlates with the explosion of injuries in June and July.
But then - maybe it still doesn’t work.
The beauty of soccer and indeed all of sport is that even sound well-executed plans can be thwarted by anything from injuries to opposition heroics to weather variables. It very well could be that things never turn around and the Struber era in Harrison ends fruitlessly some time in the next year. Maybe he gets upset with transfer market shortcomings as he did at Barnsley and bails on yet another job in his young but flight-happy managerial career. Maybe the mild-mannered Kevin Thelwell is more ruthless than it seems and sacks Struber for short-term failure before the end of 2021.
The point isn’t that Gerhard Struber is Actually Good despite a growing possibility that his tenure won’t achieve success. The point is that the club is in healthier place obtaining and trusting a figure like him than they were a year ago humming through the motions with the detritus of a fallen previous empire.