In just three weeks, Minnesota United have played three teams with starkly different approaches to roster building. The San Jose Earthquakes have looked to Europe to build their front office and their roster. Meanwhile, Orlando City have bet on an MLS-grown coaching staff, and assembled a squad of high-achieving players from within the league. Finally, the Chicago Fire are one of the last teams in MLS to be banking on the aging European superstar model.
That trend continues in the fourth gameweek, when the Loons travel to the shores of the Passaic River to play the New York Red Bulls, the most fascinating and forward-thinking club in Major League Soccer.
If it feels weird to write that about New York, it’s because not too long ago they were the exact opposite. The Red Bulls were once the East’s big spenders. It was only after the 2014 season that high-priced legend Thierry Henry retired and his do-it-all sidekick Tim Cahill moved on. That was the year the Red Bulls lost in the Eastern Conference Championship, and one year removed from their Supporters Shield winning campaign, all under the leadership of club legend and local boy Mike Petke. With two key players making exits and cross-metro rivals New York City preparing to enter the league, the Red Bulls were expected to recruit another big name (Zlatan, perhaps?) to fill the gaps left by Henry and Cahill and to compete with the David Villa and Frank Lampard-led outfit in the Bronx.
Instead, they did the exact opposite.
On January 7, 2015, word leaked out that the Red Bulls had fired Petke. Cue the pitchforks. It was one of those “where were you when…?” moments for MLS fans, not just for Red Bulls supporters. It felt like a true crisis moment — not as bad as a relocation — but a severing by clueless foreign ownership of the last connection between a club and its community, at the precise moment when the club’s position was under the most outside threat. Fans organized to buy a billboard outside Red Bull Arena to demand the energy drink conglomerate sell the team. The peak of the unrest was an infamous town hall, in which angry and emotional fans demanded answers from the front office. The man to whom the most barbed questions were lashed was the new sporting director and Petke axeman, Ali Curtis, and his answers satisfied no one.
But if the troops were unsure about crossing the Rubicon, Caesar was resolute. Curtis was said to have a 300-page plan to transform the club, a plan that was rife with the kind of corporate bullshit that always seems to accompany bad news, like ‘vertical integration’ and ‘global alignment.’ Curtis’ replacement for Petke, Jesse Marsch, had just a single year of MLS coaching experience and had been mostly biding his time breaking down tactics for MLSSoccer.com. He immediately trod on the toes of a wounded fanbase by saying he wanted his team to play a style like “an energy drink.” Corporate bullshit indeed!
Yet contra most predictions, the season came and Marsch had the Red Bulls playing faster and better, while their new rivals in blue sputtered and stalled. With the help of effective (if less flashy) stars like Sacha Klejstan and Felipe, and the emergence of academy product Matt Miazga as a top center back, the team that everyone doubted won their second Supporters Shield and crushed New York City three times.
Three years later, and the Red Bulls have yet to seriously falter. The team has been an automatic playoff entry each season, and in the past two weeks they have raised their profile with a decisive 5-1, two-legged win over Club Tijuana in the Concachampions. At the same time, they thrashed Portland in MLS with mostly a B-squad and outplayed Salt Lake last weekend, even if they lost on the road 0-1. They are not the best team in MLS, but they are the deepest, and their success is the most sustainable.
That’s because Curtis (who is no longer the technical director) and Marsch turned buzzwords into action. The Red Bulls operate one of the best academies in MLS, in one of the most talent-rich regions in the country. That was the case before Curtis and Marsch took control. But importantly, that academy now aims to play with the same fundamental principles that animate the first team—and the reserve team in USL and the semi-pro U-23 team in PDL—and those principles and style of play are being baked into the organization. The Red Bulls have established a pathway for players that stretches from middle school to the professional ranks without gaps. The best prospects will emerge from the academy ready to slot into the USL team (or go to college and spend summers with the U-23s before maybe being signed or drafted and brought back into the fold), and the standouts there will emerge ready for roles in the first team. At every stage, they will be comfortable with what is expected of them, already possessing the technique and tactical nous to match the system. Through the vertical integration of their academy and USL squad, the Red Bulls have built their entire development setup into a constant factory of core role players like Sean Davis, Connor Lade, and Alex Muyl — not just a prospecting operation for the next superstar talent, like Tyler Adams, as many MLS academies seem to operate.
This also functions for reclamation projects. The Red Bulls have the capacity and confidence to sign disappointing young players from other clubs and trust that their system will turn a few of them into worthwhile MLS players. Aaron Long from Seattle, Florian Valot from Monaco, and the undrafted Vincent Bezecourt are now first team players for New York.
Consider the twenty-one players who the Red Bulls used last week in their matches against Portland, Xolos, and Salt Lake. Six of those players were homegrowns. Eight had played more than five matches with RBNY II in USL. Against Portland, seventeen-year-old kid Ben Mines came in and scored, because he already knew what was expected of him before the game even started. Check out this incredible behind-the-scenes video from the club and see how often Jesse Marsch reminds a mostly B-squad of players that the most important thing is “looking like us.” They went out and did exactly that. All of this fruit from a system that is less than four years old.
The benefits should also accrue to the coaching ranks as well. Should Jesse Marsch move on in the coming years (and he should go to Europe), the Red Bulls will have an in-house pool of candidates already steeped in the tactics that the players are familiar with. In theory, at least, they could hire internally (or at least alumni of their coaching tree) and continue to promote players internally and insure a baseline of competitiveness for as long as the system is maintained and invested in. The Red Bulls are trying to build a perpetual motion machine, and it’s amazing to watch.
Minnesota are just starting their second MLS season, with an academy that will presumably add their first U-15 team this fall, and no USL team. The Red Bulls had all of the pieces in place when Curtis and Marsch entered the picture.
But given that they are starting fresh, Minnesota can at the very least build their system in this model. Club President Chris Wright spoke to the media this past weekend and hinted at long-awaited plans to start a USL club. That would be extremely welcome. Already this season the Loons have released Ismaila Jome and declined to sign Xavier Gomez and Shae Bottum, three players who would have surely been sent to grow in USL if the Loons could offer such an opportunity. Instead, they are lost to Minnesota.
Wright suggested the year for USL might be 2020. That would be when the leading edge of Minnesota’s academy are hitting 17, and the age at which there might be a real opportunity for the best of that bunch to consider jumping straight to a pro career. The team will need to weigh whether to place the team in a regional center like Des Moines or Madison, where it could build a new Loons’ fanbase in another state. The alternative would be to keep the team in the Twin Cities area, where it would surely be doomed to low attendance, but could take full advantage of the first team’s facilities and be much more closely integrated with the academy. Given the success of the Red Bulls’ approach, that latter option certainly has strong appeal. (Compromise option: Have the USL team train up at NSC, but play several “home” games elsewhere, like one game each year in Duluth, one game each year in Rochester, etc.)
The Loons also have a style and ethos they could fold into the entire organization structure. Much has been made about Adrian Heath’s “system” of playing, and if you ask Jamie Watson about it he will go into raptures. Teach the principles of this system to the kids. Teach them in USL. Teach them to the first team. Integrate, from top to bottom, this way of playing, so that it long outlives Heath’s tenure and becomes Minnesota’s system instead of Heath’s. It’s never too early to start building a club ethos, and for clubs like the Loons, it’s more important than for most.
Minnesota will never be among the league’s biggest spenders or most star-studded clubs. From the start, Heath and Manny Lagos have spoken about building a “core” of players who can provide continuity and quality for the club in the long-term. Thanks to NASL, the Loons already had something to build on. But in the long term, they will have to grow that core themselves. This coming Saturday, they will get an close look at a team doing just that, a team whose model they ought to shamelessly copy.
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