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New York Red Bulls becoming small club

Sunday 7th January 2018

For the second consecutive Major League Soccer off-season New York Red Bulls have traded their captain. For one of the league’s most marketable teams it’s a confounding trend.

In January 2017 Red Bulls parted ways with Dax McCarty. The defensive mid had been the heart of the team. His work rate and leadership brought the Taurine Drinkers closer to the MLS Cup than it had ever been. Yet, having come up short again, new coach Jesse Marsch expressed the desire to go in a different direction.

In truth NYRB stayed put in Harrison, New Jersey. It was McCarty who headed in a new direction, west to Chicago.

It wasn’t so bad for the ginger-haired spark plug. He joined an exciting new project in the Windy City. Former LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho was already there following a year with Tijuana in Liga MX. Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived soon after. The chase for the World Cup was on!

Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be American.

Through the midfield trio and MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, coach Veljko Paunovic engineered the Fire’s rise from the ashes. Then, as is so often the case in such dealings, McCarty and his new teammates came up against the old in the playoffs. Marsch’s decision to let his captain go was borne out when the fiery-haired Fire midfielder was dispossessed in his own half, leading to a critical goal.

It will be more difficult to rationalize trading Sacha Kljestan, though. Arriving in 2015 from Anderlecht, the play-making number ten formed a deadly partnership with Bradley Wright-Phillips. The striker pumped in 58 goals in 94 starts over three years. Kljestan recorded 51 assists in 91. Wright-Phillips did match Chris Wondolowski and Roy Lassiter’s MLS regular season goal mark with 27 the season before Kljestan arrived, but Marsch is taking a risk the 33-year-old can put up those numbers regardless who provides the service. In 2014, the Red Bulls number ten was Thierry Henry.  

Coming the other way from Orlando City in the Kljestan trade are two players. Twenty-three-year-old Carlos Rivas is an attacking mid. In 42 starts with the Lions the Colombian has eight goals and 13 assists. His numbers hardly compare to Kljestan or Wright-Phillips’. Tommy Redding (20) is a center back with 30 starts in the past two 34-game seasons.

The trade didn’t only involve players. Beyond landing Major League Soccer’s premier playmaker to replace the retiring, ineffective Kaka, Orlando receives $150,000 in allocation money to partially offset Kljestan’s million-dollar wage packet.

Marsch is obviously restocking an ageing roster. With your average football side that would be an acceptable strategy. When your team has New York in its name, however, expectations are much greater. Look at the pressure on Zinedine Zidane, going with youth this season in Madrid and watching Barcelona disappear over the La Liga horizon. Or Jose Mourinho as his Old Trafford renovation falls further behind Manchester City.

Red Bulls haven’t the North American pedigree to match either European giant. They’ve been chasing glory with frustration since their inception as the NY/NJ MetroStars. Yet, that isn’t the fans’ only consideration. There’s a new side in town looking to boss the Big Apple. Ironically, Red Bulls’ competition is NYCFC, also known as Man City Lite. The Viking Army, Empire Supporters Club, and Garden State Ultras are adamant their club not permit that to happen.

Although it would never say so publicly, the league can’t be thrilled either. The Red Bulls’ lack of spending and focus on youth isn’t helping to build a New York Derby in the tradition of Arsenal/Chelsea or Tottenham/Arsenal. Instead, the team is flirting with transforming into an MLS version of West Ham. That isn’t encouraging given commissioner Don Garber has insisted Major League Soccer will not be placing a third franchise in the city, even with the globally recognized Cosmos brand available.

For the league to become a force in that exclusive environment, it needs its marquee sides to be perennial contenders. Watching NYRB divest itself first of Dax McCarty then Sacha Kljestan without signing new marketable talent must be a concern.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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