Red Bulls' winning ways can be model for Union
After the final whistle blew on the New York Red Bulls' 4-1 pounding of the Union at Red Bull Arena on October 18, New York manager Jesse Marsch gathered his players at midfield, took hold of a microphone and turned to salute the supporters clubs in the South Ward.
"I hope that we've made you proud," he said.
Judging by the ovation the fans gave him, it seemed safe to conclude that he had. But Marsch's remark wasn't just a cliché.
He was standing there in part because last winter, Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis fired manager Mike Petke, hired Marsch and unveiled a 300-plus page Grand Plan for success.
All three of those moves did not go over well with the fan base. A few weeks after the upheaval, Curtis and Marsch sat in front of a crowd of Red Bulls season ticket hoders at a town-hall style meeting. Curtis was bombarded with criticism - including some profanity-laced servings of North Jersey lingua franca - over his decision to cast off a team legend who delivered the club's first ever trophy, the 2013 Supporters' Shield.
Marsch sat, listened, and eventually asked those fans who refused to believe in anyone other than Petke to give the new man in charge a fair shot.
Ten months later, Marsch stood before his team's fans again. This time, he received a standing ovation. And seven days after that, his team clinched the Supporters' Shield for the best overall record in Major League Soccer. That gave Marsch the same number of trophies as a coach as Petke.
Now the Red Bulls begin their latest quest to win the prize they really want, the MLS Cup. First up is an Eastern Conference semifinal series against perennial rival D.C. United, beginning Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium (3:00 p.m., ESPN and ESPN Deportes). No team carries a heavier burden of history than New York. Marsch, to his credit, has stood right up to it. And because of the work he has done, the Red Bulls have their best chance ever to chase their demons away once and for all.
On the night of the aforementioned win over the Union, Marsch was asked during his postgame press conference what it meant to him to have won the skeptics' hearts.
"It wasn't easy to follow in [Petke's] footsteps," he said. "I just tried to step in here and do the job that I thought needed to be done, and to commit to this team in the way that I thought it needed to be committed to. I asked the fans to give the team a chance, and I felt that if the team went on the field and played the way I knew it could, that eventually the fans would start to like the team."
Marsch was proven right on all of those counts. It wasn't just that the Red Bulls sealed the Eastern Conference's best record with that win over the Union. It was how they did it, allying a high-pressure defense with an intelligent, skilled attack. And they did it with a payroll that was MLS' lowest for much of the year.
Was it "Moneyball," that famed baseball term which has joined the global soccer lexicon in recent times? Perhaps, but more importantly, it was this: Marsch wanted players he could win with, Curtis went and got them, and Marsch went and won with them.
Some were castoffs from elsewhere. Sacha Kljestan and Mike Grella came home from posts abroad; Felipe Martins and Karl Ouimette came from Montréal, where they played under Marsch in 2012.
Others rose through the Red Bulls' strong youth academy and its owned-and-operated USL affiliate, such as Matt Miazga - who might be the best U.S. national team prospect in MLS right now - and Connor Lade.
They joined a core of domestic and international players who still remained from the trophy jinx-breakers - goalkeeper Luis Robles, midfielders Dax McCarty and Lloyd Sam, striker Bradley Wright-Phillips.
None was, or is, a superstar. None earns the kind of salary that's paid to the big names across the Hudson River at New York City FC - or that was paid in past Red Bulls eras to Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafael Márquez.
But they were good players who all wanted to play for their coach, and they were all players who Marsch wanted to play for him.
"I'm happy for the organization and the positive vibe that has gone on here from day one that I've been here," Marsch said in his postgame press conference after that win over the Union. "Everyone around here has continued to show belief in me, and belief in the way that we operate as a team, and belief in our players and our team, and it's meant that we've all been put in a position to succeed."
In that same press conference, I asked Marsch what it meant to him to have achieved the success his team did in the way it did. The Princeton product initially bristled at the question - understandably so, given how much criticism he's dealt with this year. But as is his nature, he gave a full and thoughtful answer:
Well, first I want to say - I don't like when people talk about our payroll being so low, because I think it belittles our players. I think we have a really talented team. And yeah, we don't have have the big superstars where you spend five million a pop on a guy, but we have a really balanced team, we have a really talented team.
I think I'd take my group of players over any other group of players in this league - and I truly mean that. This is our approach, this is who we are: it's about every guy giving everything he has to the group, and then the sum of the parts is more than the whole. We feel that where we are right now is that we're proud of what we've become, we're proud of the identity that we're building.
I'm honest to you when when I say that year one is only the start of the project. Obviously, I think we're where we'd want to be right now, but this whole thing is about building for years to come. If we can end the first year with a couple of trophies in the case, then I think that continues to validate everything that we're doing. But we've believed in it from day one. We've had a plan, we've stuck to it, and I think it has helped us be successful.
Revitalized castoffs, high-caliber youth academy products and a smartly-curated core, with a strong bond between players and coach.
Sound familiar? It should. The Union's roster shares many of the same traits. Maurice Edu and C.J. Sapong are castoffs; Zach Pfeffer is an academy product; Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Sébastien Le Toux and Conor Casey have helped build a core.
Yet the gap between the Red Bulls and Union seems as wide as the ocean of train tracks between the platforms at the Harrison PATH station.
There are a lot of ways to cast blame for that. Some fans may put it on Jim Curtin, and may note that Marsch was the other finalist to become John Hackworth's permanent successor.
Even Curtin's critics, though, would likely acknowledge that his players gave all they had for him. And imagine if Curtin had the financial and intellectual resources the Red Bulls have given Marsch. Just as importantly, imagine if Marsch's hands were tied by the Union's lack of the same - not to mention former CEO Nick Sakiewicz's penchant for meddling in player personnel.
Listen to enough people at PPL Park, and read closely between the lines of Curtin's various public remarks, and you will learn that he wasn't really able to build the team he wanted to this year. The Raïs M'bolhi fiasco was a big part of why, but it wasn't the only reason.
Imagine, then, what could have happened if the Union had hired a high-level sporting director after the 2014 season, as they had originally intended. Would a true exclusion of Sakiewicz from the on-field side of the organization have given Curtin more ability to build out the rest of his roster?
It would have been, by the way, the first time in Sakiewicz's career that he had been in an organization with a player personnel executive of that stature. Take that, combined with Union chairman Jay Sugarman's recent tacit admission that Sakiewicz continued to have a role in player personnel this year, for what it's worth.
It's also a fair bet that if a sporting director had been hired while Sakiewicz was still with the Union, it would not have been Earnie Stewart, who's better for the job than any candidates who were previously considered. And Sugarman's admission that Stewart only came into the picture "two weeks" before he was hired raised some eyebrows, since Sakiewicz departed not long before that time frame.
Now the Union have Stewart, who brings a perfect blend of American work ethic and global savvy to the front office. They have their own USL team in Bethlehem Steel, a crop of talented academy products who will play there, and the perfect coach to polish them in Brendan Burke. And they have a renewed commitment from Sugarman to put resources into the first team.
Curtin won't have the chance to do what Marsch has just done: take a team without a superstar to a Supporters' Shield in the first season of a head coaching tenure. That accomplishment is why I voted for Marsch as Coach of the Year in MLS, over Vancouver's Carl Robinson and Dallas' Oscar Pareja. Both of those men have done great work this year, and Pareja's outstanding development of his team's academy products is a feat the Union should really want to emulate. But they've had more time in their jobs, so they finish one notch short of Marsch.
On that aforementioned night at Red Bull Arena, I asked Curtin if the Red Bulls are a role model for the Union. It wasn't known then that Stewart would be hired a few weeks later, but it's never been a secret that that Curtin and Marsch are close friends.
"Jesse is the coach of the year for me," Curtin told me. "In a season where there wasn't much to be expected from that group, they've done excellently. They've over-achieved, they've done it in a way where they didn't spend millions and millions of dollars [and] they've done it with a group that believes."
Curtin joked about being wary of praising one of his team's chief rivals, but he added that "we want to look like that."
The appreciation is sincere. So too is Marsch's for Curtin. Indeed, many coaches around MLS - especially those who know Curtin from their playing days - have told me they believe he'll succeed at PPL Park.
But just as Marsch hasn't done it alone, Curtin won't be able to either. If Curtin can get the kind of help from Stewart and Burke that Marsch has received with the Red Bulls, and is thus able to build a team that is fully of his own making, it wouldn't surprise me if the Union end their playoff drought next season.
And if that happens, it will be Curtin's turn to be on a Coach of the Year short list.