From Last Word on Soccer, by Russ McKenzie
Late in 2014, after Andy Roxburgh stepped down from his role as Sporting Director for the New York Red Bulls, the club announced the hiring of MLS lifer Ali Curtis. Now, he was a relative unknown to the fan base, but his slick style and diplomatic manner did nothing to endear him.
View From South Ward: Ali Curtis’s Dismissal and RBNY’s Communication Problem
One of his first public responsibilities was to dismiss beloved defender turned folk hero coach Mike Petke. In his place, Jesse Marsch was hired and thus began the current era of Red Bulls. Now, after weeks of conjecture, Ali Curtis and RBNY have mutually agreed to part ways.
Under extreme fire, Curtis’s Red Bulls defied their critics and found themselves at the top of the MLS heap in 2015. The sense of brotherhood and optimism abounded. Even journalists, the last bastion of unbiased media, were pulling for the club. Their story was enthralling.
Curtis has had an incredibly active hand in how the current iteration of the New York Red Bulls are set up. The vaunted academy finally began to produce dividends for the senior club – most notably with the development of Derrick Etienne, Sean Davis, and Tyler Adams. The insistence on a USL side has given prospects a viable path to senior team minutes, something that was incredibly amorphous in years past.
Curtis’ passion and enthusiasm for the club fed his commitment to putting together a successful side. That drive has helped lead the club to a Supporter’s Shield, a record breaking USL Championship run, and an MLS Eastern Conference regular season title. His footprint will remain with the club for decades.
However, in a nebulous conflict, the Red Bulls and Curtis parted ways in spite of the club’s success and Curtis’ competitive drive. At the end of the day, some things remain the same.
While the conflict was going on, the club chose to deal captain Dax McCarty to Chicago for Allocation cash. This move seemed to be a departure from what Curtis and Marsch have been preaching. Dax was part of a core group of leadership in the locker room. However, McCarty seemed to be destined to become an extra piece in the Red Bulls midfield, as Davis and Adams began to blossom in 2016.
Additionally, Marsch seems to be hell bent into using the Red Bull Global formation – the 4-2-2-2. Dax never seemed comfortable in that scheme, while Davis and Adams have grown up inside of it. But, why dismiss your captain? The mind boggles. Dax has proven to be somewhat reasonable, this writer is sure that, if handled in an up front manner, Dax would have been willing to take a reduced role and assisted in the development of Davis and Adams. Also, since the Red Bulls qualified for CONCACAF Champions League for a second season in a row, New York seemingly could have used the depth in order to manage multiple competitions while running the long distance marathon that is MLS’ regular season.
The New York Red Bulls have consistently had an unattractive way of handling controversy. Instead of facing the issue head on, they put out a cold impersonal line about the dismissal. It might as well have been the same line that was released when they dismissed Mike Petke. But, in typical fashion, the statement from the club was an unsatisfying single line essentially stating “Thanks, but don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”
Unfortunately, there was a better way of handling this. However, the club has never quite been able to engage their fan base using language they understand. The canned form statement on Ali’s departure, and how it hearkens back to Petke’s dismissal, makes that perfectly clear.
While the club has remained tight lipped, Curtis has been very smart. He knows that his hire-ability relies upon the idea that he can continue to be diplomatic under extreme duress. He has played his dismissal very coolly in the media. The club, however, is typically silent.
Historically, New York seems to suffer from a communication breakdown when it comes to their fan base. While ticket sales are up, those fans don’t seem to show up on game day. One might say that the lack of fan engagement might be the issue. They seem to have chosen the same path their cross-river rivals have. News will mostly be filtered and edited down into chunks the club finds to be digestible. This avoids controversy by never acknowledging it. This is generally a tactic of European clubs. However, it seems that the lack of transparency leaves wanting fans with a bad taste in their mouths.
On the field, we come to face the new reality – This is Jesse’s show now. He holds all the cards, and is firmly in the driver’s seat. Whether that expanded role will be for the better is something that only time will tell. But, even in success, if the Red Bulls do not find a way to engage their fan base, supporters will continue to be on the outside looking in.