Thursday, April 15, 2010

Red Bulls Braintrust Not Fooling Around

When the Red Bulls finally made the move to their glittering $200 million Cathedral of Football this season, most fans expected that a new attitude would come with it - on the pitch, in public and behind the scenes.  Surely something had to change if the club had any intention of putting more butts in the 25,000 seats they had installed in Harrison.

Let's face it - the years since the Red Bull GmbH takeover of the club formerly known as the MetroStars had been mostly unhappy ones.  Despite a lucky MLS Cup run in 2008 and a few other games to remember, the story had been one of unmet expectations and neglect.  Lalas, De Grandpre, Agoos, Osorio... These are names that most Red Bulls fans would prefer to forget - each of them a by-product of Red Bull's struggle to come to grips with MLS' unique structure and their less-than-complete understanding of the North American soccer landscape.

It's still early days in the reign of the Nordic dynamic duo of Erik Solér and Hans Backe, but it's already apparent that something fundamental has changed in the approach of the organization, from Dietrich Mateschitz on down to the coaching staff and marketing team. 

Where we once saw the Red Bulls reluctant to spend its money on a second designated player, we now have a management team that is determined to be the first MLS club to buy a third DP slot, taking maximum advantage of the league's revised rules.  Where the Red Bulls once struggled to secure even mediocre overseas talent, they have now been able to convince a highly regarded player like Brian Nielsen to ply his trade in MLS.  Where we once saw almost no advertising to speak of in the tri-state area, there is now a Red Bulls ad running virtually around the clock on Fox Soccer Channel.  Clearly the Austrians have understood the need to invest heavily in New York.

Crucially, they've also made it a priority to put real football people in charge, rather than drink salesmen.  The appointment of Dietmar Beiersdorfer to oversee all of Red Bulls soccer properties seems to have been key in this regard.  In addition to finding a very astute football man in Solér to run operations in New York, Beiersdorfer also seems to be focused on more tightly integrating the Red Bull sporting organization globally, which can only benefit RBNY over the long run. 

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Though there are some clear signs of progress, the club is still digging itself out of the muck and mire after a miserable 2009.  Despite the presence of Juan Pablo Angel, the squad is still lacking in the kind of star power that is going to fill up the building, week in and week out, regardless of the opponent.  Despite the positive vibes, it is going to take a sustained effort and some real on the field success to make the Red Bulls a hot ticket in New York.  What we have now is a work in progress, but at least we can say there is progress.

As someone who suffered through a number of crappy seasons at the Meadowlands, it's awfully refreshing to see the club exuding confidence, with Backe going so far as to expect an MLS Cup victory within two years, but there is still a mountain of work to be done.  You only need to watch a replay of Saturday's game in L.A. to remind yourself.
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