The New York Red Bulls 2019 disappointed many fans, but their 2020 encore looks much bleaker. While outside factors play a part in player acquisition and scouting, there is a major sporting issue within the organization.
Denis Hamlett joined the Red Bulls ahead of the 2015 season as an assistant coach with Jesse Marsch. The organization went through whole sale front office changes that year. Ali Curtis took over as Sporting Director, and ushered in the groundwork for the youth revolution that took place over the next several years.
As an assistant, Hamlett acquitted himself well following a tumultuous offseason. That year, the Red Bulls won the Supporter’s Shield for the second time in three seasons. Following a power struggle in 2016, Curtis left the Red Bulls, and Hamlett ascended to Sporting Director.
Since then, the Red Bulls transfer struggles continue piling up and veteran player revolt is becoming the new norm. Lawrence’s comments are the most recent example:
A missing step
When the Red Bulls adopted the youth revolution in 2015, they positioned themselves as a club that could be a spring board for young players. Whether homegrown or recruited from abroad, these young players could dazzle on a bigger stage, help the team achieve, and move on to greener pastures as the cycle repeats. There is already two successful UEFA Red Bull clubs following that model. Translating the approach in a capped league like MLS should be a slam dunk.
The problem is, too often, players are struggling to transition out of NY. Whether the issues are entirely Hamlett’s, or if a lack of autonomy from RB Global is the issue is not wholly clear, but the resulting fallout is quickly becoming a major issue.
Last season, Aaron Long and Kaku both garnered interest outside MLS. Both players saw their transfer approaches rebuffed. In both cases, failing to receive a fair price was cited as the main issue. There are hints that the recently transferred Michael Amir Murillo and Kemar Lawrence received similar treatment in the past. In fact, just a few Red Bull players have seen their success at the club translate to lucrative transfers outside of MLS, Matt Miazga, Tyler Adams, and the aforementioned Murillo.
The promise of a spring board for young players is appealing, but without follow through, the Red Bulls appear to be a honey trap. Without immediate correction, there is a strong possibility that these moves could poison the well, making player recruitment much harder.
It is easy to paint Hamlett as the sole architect for the current state of the Red Bulls. However, systemic problems piled up over the last few seasons, and now the rotten fruit of those seeds is ready for harvest. Key positions in the organization remained vacant for long stretches including the scouting department, analytics, and academy coaches/management.
Without a support system, it is easy to see why Hamlett might struggle. During Kaku’s non-transfer saga last season, his agent, Gustavo Casasola intimated the issue came from RB Global.
“(Mintzlaff) is the one who arbitrarily decides everything, but he never shows his face,” Casasola said. “It seems like he may have a little bit of a problem speaking to me. I’ll speak to him whenever he wants, Oliver Mintzlaff, wherever he wants.”https://www.prosoccerusa.com/mls/kaku-agent-blast-new-york-red-bulls-in-transfer-negotiations-with-club-america/
If true, it seems Hamlett’s hands are tied, and hints at a bigger issue the Red Bulls might face. Without some amount of autonomy, is there a way the current administration can right the ship?
The other possibility? The Red Bulls shrewd business tendencies, and their tight lipped nature allows outside parties to control the narrative around the team. The Red Bulls FO remains notoriously quiet around the inner workings of the team. When drama does spill over into the public sphere, rarely do they comment beyond short, vague responses. The fallout of a situation like that is preventable, but the team rarely waivers from their guarded nature, so they receive a single narrative shaped entirely by opposition.
As the team choses to operate this way, it should garner no sympathy, nor does it excuse the current state of the team.
As far as Lawrence is concerned, he is right to feel aggrieved. He is easily the best left back in MLS, and quite possibly the best defender on the Red Bulls. His salary, however, does not reflect that truth.
At the same time, the defender signed a new contract only one year ago, and it appears he is experiencing buyer’s remorse while understanding the reality of an organization that puts a premium on youth. Like the runners in Logan’s Run, older players in New York know that their tenure is a ticking clock as the approach the end of the 20s.
No matter how you slice it, the Red Bulls 2020 outlook is grim at present. Is there time for that to change? Absolutely. The ball is in Hamlett’s court now for better or worse.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography