Last week, the Red Bulls fired head coach Chris Armas.
What do they think will change?
Of course, Armas was overseeing one of the lowest-scoring (seven goals from 10) and worst-performing (three wins from 10) teams in MLS. The change felt abrupt, but not unwarranted.
Now, former assistant Bradley Carnell has been promoted on an interim basis to Armas’ ex-job in hopes of a midseason bounce. But the club’s problems run far past Armas.
The very structure of Red Bull’s soccer network is problematic for its New York club. In the hierarchy of the drink behemoth’s like-minded clubs, New York is clearly behind Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg and ascendant German club RB Leipzig. The Red Bulls are its own club, but also one that functions to benefit its bigger, European brothers.
Just look where Tyler Adams and Jesse Marsch ended up after they departed New York.
Many clubs exist in a cycle of selling and constantly replenishing, but the Red Bulls’ relationship to their sporting siblings is compounded by their own unwillingness to spend. Even by MLS standards, they are stingy.
According to a piece from The Athletic analyzing MLS salary data last year, the Red Bulls paid out the third-least guaranteed compensation in the league in 2019. The last five teams to win the MLS Cup (Seattle, Atlanta, Toronto, Portland, LA Galaxy) were all in the top 10 on the same list.
While the purchase of Kaku for over $6 million in the winter of 2018 put New York towards the top of the league in terms of transfer fees for that year, it was a rare departure from the club’s philosophy of nurturing (and selling) cheap talent.
Since Leipzig’s debut in the 2009-10 season, New York has spent about $11 million in total transfer fees, per Transfermarkt. (note: Transfermarkt’s data may be incomplete)
In that same span, Leipzig has spent over $391 million in transfer fees. The club’s recent promotion to the Bundesliga and even more recent status as a Champions League club obviously means it has more cash to work with than New York. But seeing Leipzig spend nearly $26 million in 2014/15 before even reaching Germany’s top flight is instructive to what Red Bull views as its priority.
It’s ridiculous to think of a New York club as a small-market franchise, but that is essentially how the Red Bulls operate. There have certainly been some success stories; Adams was the best-case scenario for a homegrown talent, the Bradley Wright-Phillips signing was a stroke of genius, and Marsch got the most out of his squad during a great three-year run.
But looking at the success stories distracts from the margin of error that New York is giving itself. What happens when your manager isn’t a potential USMNT candidate like Marsch, or when your academy doesn’t have a future Champions League player like Adams about to burst through?
By toiling towards the bottom of MLS spenders, the Red Bulls are hamstringing themselves and banking on homegrown talent and a near-perfect eye for bargain signings.
Carnell can change some things, but not that small-minded mentality.
NYCFC inching back up table
NYCFC plays Cincinnati this weekend, and will hope to stretch an unbeaten run that has now reached four games.
In the second game of that run, talisman Maxi Moralez returned to the side, and New York City has looked far more like the strong attacking side that won the Eastern Conference last regular season. That includes the team’s last match — a statistical padding (1.8xG-0.0 xG, per FBref.com) against DC United that somehow ended up in a tie.
After starting the season with four straight losses, NYCFC can climb up to fifth this weekend with a win and some help.