The New York Red Bulls enjoyed a 19–year head start in the nation’s largest city. Now, facing competition from two neighboring upstarts, they finally seem to have a plan. As the team’s long-suffering fans would say, that’s not so metro.
By Howard Megdal
This story appeared in our Fall/Winter 2015 issue. You can support Howler by purchasing this edition or a subscription for yourself or a friend here.
Jesse Marsch, coach of the New York Red Bulls, stood proudly at the podium following a 4–1 victory over the New York Cosmos. It was July 1, and the win over the NASL side in the U.S. Open Cup had come three days after the Red Bulls had beaten New York’s other professional soccer team, NYCFC, by three goals to one.
“What it means for that whole New York thing?” Marsch said, responding to a reporter’s question. “That part’s been a lot of fun. Certainly I think we’ve shown this year, not just in those two games, but I think we’ve shown that we’re a good team, and we still deserve to be treated like the premier club in New York City.”
The Red Bulls haven’t been treated like a premier club for much of their 19-year existence in the crowded New York sports landscape. But Marsch had earned the right to talk big. The Red Bulls have often fielded reserve-heavy teams in the U.S. Open Cup, but in the match against the Cosmos, he picked many of his first-choice players, and the decision paid off. More than 11,000 fans made the trip to Red Bull Arena, in Harrison, New Jersey, that Wednesday night. After the dismantling of the Cosmos was complete, the players walked over to the South Ward, where the Red Bulls’ most fervent supporters stand, and were greeted by an endless rain of cheers.
These were the same fans who had so vocally — and even visibly, with one leasing a billboard over Route 280 — opposed the firing of coach Mike Petke just months before. The ones who saw their team lose its two biggest stars, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, during the off-season, without bringing in anywhere close to comparable replacements. It wouldn’t be surprising if those fans had stopped coming by this point in the season.
But it hasn’t happened that way.
With the recent arrival of two local teams came a suddenly overcrowded metropolitan soccer market that the Red Bulls had previously monopolized by default, and the organization has responded with a reconstruction like none that has come before. Perhaps aware that a bad season no longer means simply another year of lackluster results but rather possible extinction, the Red Bulls have turned a franchise once expert in mediocrity into a viable attraction.
In early May, two months before that game against the Cosmos, the Red Bulls sold out their first game of the 2015 season. The sellout had less to do with the Red Bulls than it did with their opponent: the game was the very first MLS New York derby for the Red Bulls and the expansion team NYCFC. In one sense, the match was just one in a 34-game season. But no one who took part saw it that way. Rather, it was orchestrated to showcase MLS’s presence in the largest media market in the country. The Red Bulls’ failure to do this on their own was precisely the reason NYCFC existed in the first place — during the new club’s push for expansion, MLS commissioner Don Garber frequently said that a second team was necessary to help the league grow.
His words didn’t go unnoticed by the Red Bulls. Back in August 2014, general manager Marc de Grandpre stated his team’s goal publicly: within five years, he said, the club intended to sell out each home match at the team’s 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena. But as Grandpre made clear to me at the time, this wasn’t going to happen via star power. “We’ve got to focus on what we have and what we can control,” he said. From then on, the club would focus on winning its matches, improving game-day experiences for its fans at one of the finest soccer facilities in America, and embracing the club’s history.
Yet it wasn’t clear how much there was to embrace. In MLS’s first season in 1996, the Red Bulls, then called the MetroStars, lost their home opener on an own goal by defender Nicola Caricola. The team managed to lose so many subsequent games in similarly ludicrous and inexplicable ways that a phrase popped up to catch them all: “That’s so Metro.” In 2006, the Red Bull energy drink company purchased and rebranded the club, wiping away everything about the team that had come before. Unfortunately, not much winning followed. The team imported high-priced stars with very little attention fit together.
The outcry from the fans was intense, with Curtis’s 300-page plan to revitalize the club, a document he had been putting together for seven years, coming in for particular derision.
Thierry Henry was the greatest and highest-priced of them all, arriving in 2010. Rafael Márquez transferred from Barcelona that same year. He stayed for two and a half seasons but spent much of them suspended because of frequent red cards. (His most infamous ejection came after he was involved in a scuffle at the end of the first leg of the 2011 playoff against the LA Galaxy. The Red Bulls lost the series 3–1 on aggregate.) Henry already occupied Tim Cahill’s best position when the Red Bulls bought him from Everton in 2012, so the Australian international spent much of his time as a box-to-box midfielder.
It’s hard to separate these stars’ tenures with the Red Bulls from Red Bull Arena itself, which opened a few months before Henry joined the club. The team has made the playoffs every season it’s played there, but it has advanced past the conference semifinals only once. Attendance has been strong, averaging 19,000 per game, according to the team, but media coverage has proven sporadic. Financial losses have led to persistent rumors that the owners would soon cash out.
Heading into that first game against NYCFC in May, the Red Bulls had lost only one match of their first eight and were undefeated at home through four. Once the whistle sounded, the team quickly showed why it had been so successful. It dictated the pace and attacked from the get-go. Less than five minutes in, winger Lloyd Sam spun out of trouble inside the box and passed the ball across the goalmouth to an open Bradley Wright-Phillips, the team’s leading goal scorer for the last two seasons, who tapped the ball into the net to give the Red Bulls a 1–0 lead.
Both Sam and Wright-Phillips had been with the club for a few years, but the team’s high-pressure attack was evidence of a new approach that first began with the hiring of sporting director Ali Curtis in December 2014. Curtis, a bookish 36-year-old, won the 1999 Hermann Trophy while at Duke and then played three seasons with three different MLS clubs before retiring and joining the league’s front office. One of his first moves with the team was his most unpopular: the firing of Petke, a club legend and a fan favorite. The outcry from the fans was intense, with Curtis’s 300-page plan to revitalize the club, a document he had been putting together for seven years, coming in for particular derision. Curtis replaced Petke with Marsch, and a week later the duo met with fans in a public forum to hear their complaints and present the new management’s vision for the future.
Roughly 300 season ticket holders showed up to air their frustration. Curtis had trouble selling them on his plan that night, but his new coach made some headway, and both men gained some traction by staying 30 minutes afterward to keep talking with fans. Once the season began, and the fans saw that Marsch’s up-tempo game was both attractive and successful, they got behind him.
Marsch has established a rapport with the press as well. He isn’t a combative figure like Petke, who liked to challenge the premise of questions, and he isn’t a quiet one like Petke’s predecessor, Hans Backe, who didn’t like to share his thinking at all. Instead, Marsch communicates specific reasons for all his decisions, regardless of how they turn out.
His approach is emblematic of the Red Bulls’ new business model. He talks to media and fans alike with a purpose: to make everyone feel that they are part of the program. The organization has a long-term plan for what it’s doing now, and that plan is being implemented both on the field and high above it — six floors up, to be exact — in a booth overlooking Red Bull Arena.
“Welcome to the 20th season of New York Red Bulls soccer and the first season of the New York Red Bulls Network!” said
Jonathan Yardley, the voice of the Red Bulls Radio Network, before an early-season game. Beside him stood Steve Jolley, Yardley’s broadcast partner and a former Red Bulls player. On air, the two display a natural chemistry. Yardley offers an easy delivery and the ability to get Jolley telling entertaining stories from his 10-year career. For his part, Jolley has demonstrated a talent for weaving those stories directly into the game’s narrative.
The network’s very existence is thanks to Jason Baum, the team’s senior director of communications. Curtis hired him in April after Baum had spent the last decade at Rutgers, where he managed to get the school’s middling athletic program outsize national coverage. One of Baum’s first moves with the Red Bulls was to create the radio network. That was no small achievement — in the team’s 19 years, from Caricola through Henry, not a single Red Bulls match had been broadcast on New York radio. By contrast, NYCFC had leveraged its relationship with the Yankees, a minority owner of the club, to have its games called on WFAN, one of the nation’s most popular sports radio stations — all before it had even played a game.
The Red Bulls Radio Network was up and running for the first match after Baum was hired, on April 17 against the San Jose Earthquakes. That broadcast was Internet only, and listenership numbered in the hundreds. But by late May, two weeks after the match against NYCFC, the broadcast could also be heard on SiriusXM channel 94.
Radio isn’t the only medium in which the club has enhanced its presence this season. In another booth high above the field at Red Bull Arena, I met the team’s digital media manager, Scott Sandalow, who had been brought on to goose its social media impact. Last winter, much of the fans’ frustration toward the club following Petke’s dismissal was aired on Twitter, in obscenity-filled tweet after tweet.
Sandalow likened his own experience to what Marsch and Curtis went through at the town hall meeting. He believes the discourse ultimately bonded the team’s fans with its social media staff. The club has more than 130,000 Twitter followers, which places it near the league average, but fan engagement on the platform has increased nearly 400 percent over last year, according to the team.
“It’s a question of showing everybody we’re in this together, that we’re as invested in this as they are,” Sandalow said of the Red Bulls’ response to the fan onslaught. “We needed to show empathy.” “And if we got through this?” he told himself in the midst of it. “Everything else was going to be great!”
The increased fan support was evident during the sold-out match in May against NYCFC. Crowd noise inside the stadium reached playoff levels, especially in the 36th minute, when 20-year-old Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga received a second yellow card, reducing the Red Bulls to 10 men as boos rained down from the crowd. Miazga’s sending off wasn’t part of the game plan, but his aggressive defending most definitely was.
“We’ve invested a lot in our youth, which means young legs, which means we can play the way we want to play and can recover the way we want to recover, game after game,” Marsch said in August. This aspect of the coach’s restructuring has been necessary in order to employ his relentless brand of soccer, and the squad’s commitment to it was clear against NYCFC. Even with 10 men, the Red Bulls maintained the fast pace it had set at the match’s start. For the rest of the first half, the Red Bulls remained the more dangerous side. Miazga and midfielder Sean Davis have been the most impressive of the younger contingent of Red Bulls this year, but the club, which was the third-oldest in the league in 2014, has repeatedly placed a number of other young homegrown players into its starting XI.
The team’s investment in youth has come at a price: Red Bulls fans no longer see any of the high-priced stars of the club’s past. Henry retired at the end of last season, and Cahill soon left for China. For the game against NYCFC, the Red Bulls had only one designated player, Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is less an imported star than one of the team’s own making, with the bulk of his career prior to joining the club coming in England’s second and third divisions. Wright-Phillips led the Red Bulls in scoring last season, and led them again as of late August 2015, but people don’t make a point of coming to the stadium to see him. The same is true of midfielder Sacha Kljestan, the team’s biggest off-season acquisition, who drew all of eight members of the media — including cameramen — to his introductory press conference in February.
Curtis and Marsch have used performance analytics to improve their squad. The signing of previously unheralded defender Kemar Lawrence, 22, is a prime example. The Jamaican has starred for the Red Bulls this year, and he stood out with some excellent performances at the Copa América. In the summer transfer window, the Red Bulls signed a second designated player, Gonzalo Veron, a 25-year-old attacking midfielder from Argentina’s San Lorenzo, who has promise but not name recognition in the U.S.
It could be the expansion bump, or a troubling sign of what’s to come for the New Jersey–based team, but the number of spectators in the Bronx was twice what Red Bull Arena can even hold.
In the second half of the match, NYCFC went on the attack, but doing so allowed the Red Bulls to take advantage of their speed on the counterattack. The home side created one dangerous opportunity after another, and in the 52nd minute, Sam and Kljestan combined to set up Wright-Phillips for his second tap-in of the game, giving the Red Bulls a 2–0 lead. Despite a late goal for NYCFC, the Red Bulls hung on for the victory and, perhaps more important, for bragging rights in the first installment of the New York derby. The win was all the more impressive because the Red Bulls played a man down for more than half of the match. Afterward, Wright-Phillips pointed out that the team was prepared for such an event because Marsch made sure the players regularly practiced that way. I asked Wright-Phillips if that was common on other teams he’s played for.
“No,” he said with a smile.
Judging by attendance figures, the New York rivalry has been a boon for the Red Bulls, and the league. The first match was also Red Bull Arena’s first sellout of the season. When the Red Bulls traveled across the Hudson River to Yankee Stadium on the last Sunday in June, more than 48,000 people turned up to watch the away team win 3–1. The volume of the singing from the away section suggested that a sizeable proportion of the crowd was rooting for the team in red and white. It could be the expansion bump, or a troubling sign of what’s to come for the New Jersey–based team, but the number of spectators in the Bronx was twice what Red Bull Arena can even hold.
Early-season numbers show that the Red Bulls’ winning has helped stave off a feared drop in home attendance following the departure of Henry and Cahill. Attendance has actually risen slightly this year over last (up to an average of nearly 19,000 after nine matches this season, from just more than 18,000 at the same point in 2014). But the numbers still pale beside those of NYCFC, which averages nearly 29,000 per game. Part of NYCFC’s draw is simply the novelty of the new team. Part of it is its location. Part of it is the aggressive above-the-line advertising spending by the club, which the Red Bull company has shown no signs of trying to match.
The third league match against NYCFC, on August 9 at Red Bull Arena, was the stadium’s only other sellout to that point in the season. It was also only the second match in which NYCFC’s three biggest stars — Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, and David Villa — had played together. Despite the heavy dose of celebrity to NYCFC’s signings, the trio sound a distinct echo of the Henry-Cahill Red Bulls era. It’s not yet clear how the stars fit with their teammates on the field. At 37, 36, and 33 years of age respectively, none of them are young men. In what has to be considered NYCFC’s first “Metro” moment, the team spent three months in a slow-motion public-relations car wreck as Lampard extended his loan to Manchester City through the end of the Premier League season, causing him to miss the first four months of the MLS campaign, and then injured his quad days before he was to set to make his NYCFC debut in July.
Perhaps it should have come as no surprise when the younger, faster Red Bulls thoroughly outclassed NYCFC’s aging roster for a 2–0 victory, with goals from Wright-Phillips and 24-year-old Brazilian midfielder Felipe. The win completed a sweep for the Red Bulls over NYCFC on the season. In a play that excited Red Bulls fans into a thunderclap of noise late in the match and seemed to exemplify the distance in methodology between the two clubs, new Red Bulls signing Mike Grella nutmegged Lampard. Grella’s salary of $60,000 is exactly 1 percent of what the Englishman will earn from NYCFC this season.
The new combination of players, staff, and strategy has led the Red Bulls to one of the best records in the league. As of late August, the club was second in the Eastern Conference, with several games in hand, and deep in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield, the title given to the team with the league’s best regular-season record. The winning has served another purpose, too. It has provided the Red Bulls with an answer for the local media attention that followed all the high-priced acquisitions across the river. In light of NYCFC’s grand entrance into MLS, the Red Bulls’ three derby victories have felt as though the underdog has prevailed, even though the Red Bulls enjoy a 19-year head start. Yet it doesn’t feel like 19 years to the team’s new brain trust. It doesn’t even feel like one.
Howard Megdal is a writer at Capital New York whose work has also appeared in Politico, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, and more. He tweets at @howardmegdal. Timothy Young is a contributing photographer for the magazine. See more of his work here.