The New York Red Bulls are set to open the 2022 Major League Soccer season against the San Jose Earthquakes, but there appears to be some discontent in the clubhouse.
In his first press conference of the year, Gerhard Struber threw away the carrots and delivered a sharp poke with the stick, adding comments of a similar tenor during a discussion with Austrian media. After coy hints and allusions to other clubs throughout the offseason, he has made his frustrations clear, which could only be ignored by the most obtuse of partners who claim to be blindsided when handed the divorce papers. If history is repeating, club and manager could be heading for a split, either a quick break or an enduring saga of firmly dug-in heels.
We must, once again, pull out the thumb tacks and string to look back at Struber’s Barnsley tenure, described as an “energy vampire” by the man himself. Fresh off a buzzy escape from relegation, the Austrian was courted by Watford and two Eredivisie sides, choosing instead to stay with the Tykes. However, he stressed the need for management to “give him a hand” in the transfer market.
Barnsley was active to an extent. Dominik Frieser, a relative veteran from the Austrian Bundesliga, was signed from LASK Linz. Right back Kilian Ludewig, who spent the previous season on loan, returned for a second tour of duty. These additions were deemed insufficient, a refrain carried throughout the summer 2020 transfer window that extended into October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For me, it’s not the goal to always play in the relegation zone,” Struber said three days before leaving Barnsley. “I have other ambitions and aims and I cannot feel that the owners have the same ambitions and goals like me… Every year, every season, this is a big, big fight with a big, big energy until the last game to stay in the league - and, one more time, it is a big question to the owners, is this the goal?... I have had a very good time here and I feel I have a very big trust in this squad and in the players but what the team needs and what the club needs is more quality.”
MLS obviously does not engage in the practice of promotion and relegation, but the parallels of a playoff hunt and repeated roster rebuilds are difficult to ignore. This most recent offseason, following an emotional run to the postseason in which the Red Bulls overcame an almost unprecedented series of trials and tribulations, Struber publicly flirted with the assistant role at Manchester United but was unwilling to take a demotion. He cautioned that the “design” of the transfer window would impact the length of his stay in New York, noting “inquiries” from interested parties in Germany, England, and Austria.
His recent criticism of the Red Bulls’ transfer dealings is to be expected from someone simply intolerant of muted windows in which positions of need go unfulfilled, unlikely to be swayed by a SuperDraft class. Readers shouldn’t need a mall map to determine the current location of HERE. Following the draining success, the minor flirtation, and winking threats, the manager has fired a shot across the bow of the executive department and hoisted the colors of discontent, visible to anyone who might provide a rescue and tow back to Europe.
His transfer complaints may possess some validity but are running counter with the club’s current direction. Struber has been known to carry younger rosters, although he prefers to deploy veterans at key positions due to their firmer grasp of tactics and immediate performance. The latter group can sometimes fail to intersect with the greater Red Bull ethos of signing and capitalizing on players during their career ascent, establishing a steady conveyor belt of development that produces profit and avoids perilous final contracts.
New York sporting chief Kevin Thelwell has stated his aversion to signings that would block the advancement of developing prospects, which could explain some noticeable gaps on the depth chart. New York has long been an enigma to Red Bull brass, with former Leipzig Sporting Director Markus Krösche going well out of his way to note a lack of Bundesliga-level talent at the club. One of Ralf Rangnick’s last labors in the organization was to streamline the Western Hemisphere outposts, an effort that has gone swimmingly at Bragantino but less successful in North America. The current transfer strategy appears a dogged and committed effort to build this pipeline by any means necessary, which does little to support the current manager’s aims of winning silverware and strengthening his résumé. Although, for the record and in interest of neutrality, recent additions Luquinhas and Lewis Morgan are hardly neophytes at 25 years old.
Struber was reportedly recruited back to Red Bull by no less than company founder Dietrich Mateschitz. The understanding was that he would be provided the proper funding to build the squad, avoiding the financial issues that have forced Barnsley into frequent relegation battles. Despite the transfer fees paid to acquire several players, New York lags behind the splashier amounts thrown around by other clubs around MLS, while also lacking the ability to attract the world’s best young talents like RB Salzburg and Red Bull Leipzig.
At 45 years old, Struber is still something of a new and developing manager, only having truly entered the game in 2017 with Liefering and leaving the nest for Wolfsberger AC in 2019. He is far from established, still engaged in the ruthless ladder-climbing of many early-career professionals. His New York tenure always had a slightly obscured expiration date, but the familiar Red Bull trappings were thought to serve as a firewall against building acrimony. As the organization continues to shift – and perhaps drift a little – post-Rangnick, standing or relationships may have changed amid shifting priorities and tactical refreshes, no longer the same environment that welcomed back the prodigal son with open arms.
When a club hires Struber, they are signing up for his entire stubborn experience, from the first through the last day. He is very particular about the players he desires, harboring little use for anyone outside of his tactical designs or prescribed talent level. Since-departed New York midfielder Florian Valot claimed the manager had “not spoken to [him] in a few months,” an awkward experience for a long-tenured member of the club. This echoes similar notes from Barnsley where at least one “very good player” was quite forcibly shown the door for the perceived failure to meet expectations.
His assertion of having “18 players available” could be an even lower number when considering those truly trusted to secure three points. Struber would be far from the first New York manager to avoid using a full substitute allotment out of frustration. With visa issues continuing to haunt the club, he may be weeks away from having a more complete roster, which would still fall short of requested composition.
Struber noted that the Red Bulls have missed out on players due to other clubs being ‘willing to spend a lot more money,” noting the financial differences between New York, Europe, and Brazil. He described his outpost as “very humble,” but has little interest in “overpaid players who don’t have the hunger necessary to fight for the cause.” Falling short on transfer fees has been a common theme over the past few years, with solid scouting undercut by a rigid adherence to market value and a refusal to pay premium prices on sometimes speculative talent.
His other critique of the roster is a lack of consistency, considering the current season another rebuild. “The conditions are difficult,” he told Austrian media this week. “Not much is left from the squad from the previous season. Contrary to expectations, we had to turn everything inside out, lost seven starters and gained two. Also, we raised some players from the academy and the second team. To be honest, this wasn’t the plan, we wanted to keep the team together.”
New York lost a few significant players from last season – notably Fábio Gomes, Sean Davis, and Kyle Duncan – receiving zero compensation for their departures in a decidedly anti-Red Bull fashion. However, despite the failure to directly replace these players, the roster is still largely intact, gaining some strength in the attack but appearing a little more threadbare on the back line. Those “one or two key players” arriving before the end of the transfer window in May would ideally fill some holes…assuming the manager is around for their on-boarding process.
As recently as November, Struber told Krone that his desire is to “play for titles,” but the knob of expectations appears to have been dialed down a few ticks. He is locked into New York for the foreseeable future, on a contract that “runs for another two years.” The pesky release clause — appearing to be a somewhat substantial and “hefty compensation fee” that drew slight recoil from Manchester United in the midst of Rangnick’s fanciful honeymoon phase — may be the main obstacle preventing his departure.
His next hypothetical and potential employment is unknown, although the persistent suggestion is the Austrian national team. Adding more credence to whispers that have built over the past year, Struber directly and “diplomatically” addressed the rumor, describing the connection as “an honor” but throwing support behind manager Franco Foda. Burschen (The Boys) are set to compete in a single-elimination, four-team tournament next month for a spot at the 2022 World Cup. Any stumble against Wales or the Ukraine/Scotland would likely open the manager position, providing the opportunity of a welcome homecoming for a man who misses his family and “very simple things [like] a Kaiserschmarrn.”
A few days prior to the start of the season appears an inopportune time to voice discontent, but there is little sense in emotional people attempting to hide apparent frustration. Struber’s radical transparency is an interesting strategy that will either force the club into action or provide an explanation if the results take turn for the dismal. He is an in-demand manager that will find a new job independent of his successes and failures in MLS. The sporting department must determine whether the manager’s demands for immediate transfer fixes conflict with long-term development goals, a decision that could shape the next few years of New York Red Bulls soccer.