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Red Bull-style success in Philadelphia emphasizes malaise in New York

Philadelphia plays in the final this weekend after lapping the Red Bulls with the same strategy

Philadelphia Union v New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia celebrates in front of the Red Bull logo in Harrison earlier this year.
Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

The last couple years for the New York Red Bulls haven’t been the easiest to get a read on, but one aspect of the club in its current state is fairly undeniable: it’s never been more linked with its corporate parent company.

Fifteen years into the energy drink era of New York soccer, the long-anticipated but strangely hesitant Mitteleuropean takeover of the club’s operations has finally manifested. Austrian manager and former Red Bull Salzburg academy coach Gerhard Struber has spent the last two seasons installing an extreme pressing system well in line with the tactical identity of sibling teams in Europe, while new sporting chief and Bundesliga veteran Jochen Schneider was adamant in his introduction to local press earlier this year that New York would not waver from the Red Bull strategy of young, efficiently-recruited teams playing vertical pressing soccer.

While the club’s first era of characteristic high-pressing soccer was implemented by the American regime assembled by Jesse Marsch, the current era is marked by an even more dogmatic approach to the club-building strategy formulated by Ralf Rangnick and company over the last decade. The most significant flourish of organic fan culture at the club in recent years has been the “The Red Bull” meme, built both ironically and sincerely around the premise that Red Bull’s corporate machine will eventually overwhelm all obstacles big and small. Hypothetically New York should be at the height of the potential contained in the Red Bull footballing ideology — which makes it all the more troubling that a club just down the road is performing even better with the same blueprint.

This weekend the Philadelphia Union will face Los Angeles FC in the MLS Cup final in the culmination of an era where the club once derided as a little brother desperate for a rivalry with New York has now leapfrogged the Red Bulls at their own game. After nearly a decade of forgettable teams and a growing reputation for low spending, Philadelphia finally found the right formula by hiring Red Bull Salzburg academy director Ernst Tanner as their sporting director in late 2018.

As has been described in numerous profiles over recent weeks as Philadelphia crept towards the final after a stellar regular season, Tanner has assembled arguably the strongest program in MLS and has done it well within the Red Bull framework he helped establish during his European career. While New York has floundered through a series of mediocre seasons since the departure of Marsch at the same moment of Tanner’s arrival, Philadelphia has secured a Supporters Shield and are now on the brink of their first MLS Cup — and they’ve done it all with the same general strategy.

It’s not as if Philadelphia have eclipsed New York by spending more — the club’s most notable signings ahead of this season were Danish league journeyman Mikael Uhre and Inter Miami salary dump Julian Carranza. Even within the team’s lower budgets, Philadelphia hasn’t really required canny overseas scouting to find quality depth and glue — the squad is propped up by SuperDraft picks such as Jack Elliott and Andre Blake as well as USL flotsam like Olivier Mbaizo and Cory Burke. Philadelphia has a slightly more-experienced unit than New York’s but were still the fifth-youngest squad in MLS this year.

At the same time that the current New York project stalls under a $2 million coach claiming he needs even more gourmet transfers to fulfill his vision entering a third season, Tanner has eagerly accepted the technical challenges posed by MLS. It took him only a year and change to build a Supporters Shield winner in Philadelphia, and in the years since Tanner has quietly built even more of a juggernaut by installing European principles while also empowering domestic know-how. After a tense beginning, Tanner ended up committing to loyal hometown manager Jim Curtin and has patiently built the team while remaining competitive in the league and agile with outgoing transfers such as Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie.

Tanner has the Union reaping even more rewards from the fertile Pennsylvania youth scene, with generations of academy talents given a platform to thrive in a team that is able to transmit its tactical approach without overwhelming dogma and constant personnel tinkering and formation shifts. The club’s branding — unencumbered by the need to align with sterile global objectives — manages to dovetail the team’s no-frills soccer identity with the city’s boisterous and irreverent sports culture that Tanner expresses consciousness of, with the club regularly selling out Subaru Park this season. Not to go full sports blogger, but all in all it’s something of a Stone Temple Pilots of MLS, taking stylistic elements pioneered by other entities to make a more dynamic, accessible product.

It’s a rather confounding layer added to the identity crisis for the New York Red Bulls, with most fan discourse having long rested on the assumption that the club was falling behind flashy-spenders and celebrity Designated Players rather than being beaten at their own game. After a shot across the bow with a Supporters Shield win in 2020, energy drink era Philadelphia finding itself on the brink of the cup feels like the true alarm for New York’s status in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Crashing into a revolving door of Torontos and Atlantas and Citys having brief flashes at the top is frustrating — slipping year-after-year behind a club with the same approach as yours is difficult to explain as anything other than a blatant long-term failure on the part of Red Bull’s vaunted soccer operation. From the complacency-inducing promotion of Chris Armas to the aborted handing of the keys to Kevin Thelwell to the resume development of Gerhard Struber, none of the remote approaches taken by Red Bull in New York since the Marsch era have proven anywhere close to as effective as what Tanner has built over the same time period.

How close is New York’s interpretation of the Red Bull ideology to pulling level with Philadelphia? It’s difficult to tell. In some ways the club is still effectively in the upswing of the rebuild Thelwell initiated in 2020 before friction with Struber led to a return to his native North West England with Everton earlier this year. The club has transitioned out of the Marsch-Armas rosters and into a young core of players that has now been given two years to gel under Struber’s tactical reset, having slightly improved to 4th in the conference after a concerning dip in the Austrian’s first season. Parallel-universe Tanner figure Jochen Schneider appears set to stay for a while after a long and recently-turbulent career in Europe, and has begun locking down the parts of the squad worth building around.

But the spiritual momentum Philadelphia has ridden to their current peak is not nearly as palpable in Harrison. The Red Bulls recently ended an underwhelming close to 2022 with a ignominious home playoff loss to an insurgent Cincinnati team — funnily enough commandeered by recent Philadelphia operators and Tanner protégés Pat Noonan and Chris Albright. Many of New York’s marquee signings of recent seasons such as Patryk Klimala, Luquinhas, and Dru Yearwood saw their form decline over the course of the past year. The relationship between the club and fans is at possibly its chilliest as the manager points his finger at the peanut gallery and attendance suffers after a season of rough home form and strained community interaction. Earlier this year Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin casually fired off perhaps the fiercest insult yet of New York’s often-spotty attendance, but unfortunately after this year it’s hard to blame him for looking downward.