As the dominant talk in global football centres around whether Real Madrid and Manchester City can wrestle back their respective titles in 2016, across the Atlantic fans are pondering whether their team will ever lift a domestic title. Welcome to the world of Red Bull – New York, that is.
The continually elusive Major League Soccer triumph is one of football’s lesser heard yet most intriguing tales. For here we have a club, one of MLS’s most powerful and prestigious, with a rich and talent-filled history that should in theory be challenging for the championship on a regular basis. From the early days of Empire Soccer Club and MetroStars, a curtain of deceitful flattery has fallen over this iconic club.
A year shy of its 20th anniversary, Major League Soccer has grown into a truly global brand, represented by franchised clubs across the nation with fanatical fans, gifted squads and promising youth development programs. For Red Bull, the mystery started in 1996 at the Supplemental Draft and has continued ever since.
Heading into the inaugural season, the club signed US legends including Tab Ramos, Tony Meola and Peter Vermes. Roberto Donadoni, still one of Europe’s most influential midfielders, joined from AC Milan, and Eddie Firmani of New York Cosmos fame signed up as coach.
Indeed, it was all shaping up nicely until two Brazilians, Juninho and Tulio, signed to great anticipation, were waived ahead of the new season. While the true identity of Tulio remains a mystery – many believe he too was called Juninho – the other Juninho was one of the Premier League’s brightest stars. His performances for Middlesbrough have entered English football folklore.
The bizarre, often ridiculed, nature of their drafting then release cast a dark a shadow over the club; it’s a shadow that bares striking similarities to the one looming over the club today.
The debut MLS season was expected to be a walkover for the MetroStars as their star-studded line up took to the field for their first match against New England Revolution. Ninety minutes of dominance and smart possession football counted for little as former Juventus defender Nicola Caricola’s own goal left 46,000 fans speechless and set the tone for a disappointing season ahead.
In many ways it’s a season that set the precursor for modern ones. Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry were set to finally end the drought when they came together in 2010. They failed, and Angel moved on after six months. In 2013, under the guidance of Red Bull cult hero Mike Petke, the club failed again, despite recruiting Juninho Pernambucano, Peguy Luyindula, Tim Cahill and Fabian Espindola. Many call the clubs inability to lift the MLS Cup the ‘Curse of Tulio’. They jest, of course, but there’s a telling trend that started during that fateful draft in 1996.
Back to ’96, and with the club floundering, Firmani was replaced by Carlos Queiroz. The man who would later go on to manage Real Madrid and Portugal fared little better, recording 12 wins and losses as they finally saw their title tilt end at the hands of D.C. United in the playoffs.
Again, in many ways, the fundamental issues that plagued the MetroStars at the inception of MLS are still evident today. For starters, nobody is ever sure about the coach. Juan Carlos Osorio – the new Mexico manager – was labelled “aloof” in the media only a season after guiding the club to their best finish (runners up in 2008). Hans Backe, for all his good work on and off the pitch, was discarded after failing to bring the title to New Jersey. Mike Petke, perhaps the franchise’s most revered player, was building well, but deemed “weak” in the changing room. You get the feeling that the job is a poisoned chalice.
Then you have the star names that have failed to live up to expectations. Brazil great Branco only lasted 11 games after joining in 1997. The list of big-name players is a who’s who of world football: Youri Djorkaeff, Rafael Marquez, Michael Bradley, Lothar Matthaus, Tim Howard, Alexi Lalas, Claudio Reyna, Clint Mathis, Teemu Tainio, Albert Celades, Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo and of course, Angel, Cahill and Henry.
It’s not like the club hasn’t ever had the requisite infrastructure either. Giants Stadium, home to the franchise throughout much of their tumultuous journey, was one of world sports most recognisable arenas. Since 2010, Red Bull Arena has been home to the club and sits proudly as MLS’s best football-specific stadium. It’s testament to the work of Red Bull off the field that such advancements have been made.
The question that leaves is what does the future hold? It’s the same come March every year as people wildly predict that this will finally be the Red Bulls’ year.
Looking ahead, the new training facility in East Hanover has the potential to change things. Training at Montclair State University did the team no favours with the changing rooms located a considerable walk away from the pitch and the standard of facilities poor. The new training ground, complete with state-of-the-art modern aids, has the potential to develop better home-grown talent in addition to supporting the needs of the first team. Results will take time but it’s a positive step for the club.
And it will need to be. With the formation of New York City FC, a genuine rival has emerged in the Big Apple. Crucially, the new franchise will also be based within the city. It points to a smaller Red Bull fan base. After all, the club is based in New Jersey, not New York. Though Red Bull Arena is a short commute from Lower Manhattan, many fans travel from the Bronx, where NYCFC play.
The battle between the established might of Red Bull and the Manchester City-owned dollars of NYCFC is a mouth-watering prospect. The rivalry has the potential to be as fierce as the Cascadia battles between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. For anyone that’s ever been to a Seattle versus Portland game – and I consider myself a lucky man – it’s one of the football’s most intense, passionate and meaningful derbies. MLS will only be stronger for an equivalent rivalry on the east coast.
But will Red Bull be stronger for it? Perhaps. This may be the kick-start that the club needs to reverse its fortunes and plan big again. There is talk of big names coming in 2016, but the same applies to their rivals from the city.
It remains to be seen if the big names are what the club needs. Maybe the solution for Red Bull is to stride away from their mini Galactico policy and follow the lead of Real Salt Lake in 2009, Colorado in 2010 and Sporting Kansas in 2013, who blended youth, talent and grit to claim their triumphs. LA Galaxy did much the same in 2014.
For the time being, the Curse of Tulio lives on and shows no signs of abating. Whether the Red Bulls can finally secure an MLS Cup triumph before their rabid neighbours remains a mystery. It’s something that may greatly affect their ability to retain supporters and prove that they are the true kings of New York in the long term.
The club is fast approaching a crossroads in its existence. Red Bull as a sporting organization are winners; they believe in success and being the very best. The franchise, at the moment, is far from that. Is there a chance that the drinks giant may pull the plug? It’s probably too early to tell but there will doubtless be serious discussions if NYCFC outperform the club over the coming 18 months.
Either way, the story of Red Bull is both intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. It’s a case of history repeating itself over and over again; the same mistakes through the same philosophy. For all the progress off the field, the time has surely come for a change of direction on it. Rebuilding starts with the bottom up, and the long-standing, high-profile recruitment policy has let the club down on countless occasions.
For the sake of the fans, the time has come for the club to stand up and take charge of their sub-standard record.
About the author – Omar Saleen
Based in London, Omar is the editor-in-chief at These Football Times. A professional coach by day having worked at clubs including Fulham, QPR and Red Bull New York, he also writes freelance for a number of outlets.