Red Bulls not for sale but change philosophy
HARRISON, N.J. - New York Red Bulls commercial director Marc de Grandpre doesn't mince words when asked about rumblings that the club's billionaire owner, Austrian energy drink magnate Dietrich Mateschitz, might be willing to offload the MLS club he purchased in 2006.
"This team is not for sale, and it's not going to be for sale," De Grandpre, who served as the organization's chief executive from 2006 to '08 before returning in April to run the franchise' business operations, said this week during an interview at Red Bull Arena.
"If anyone would know, it would be me. Our owner is committed long term."
It was a rare statement of certainty in what has been a Red Bulls season punctuated by question marks.
Will Thierry Henry or fellow designated player Tim Cahill be back next season?
Who will replace the two stars if they leave?
And how will the Red Bulls respond to the challenge posed by deep-pocketed encroacher New York City FC, the expansion team that arrives in the Bronx next season boasting European veterans Frank Lampard and David Villa?
That last query may be the most intriguing of all.
For most of its 18-year existence (the club was known as the MetroStars before being re-branded following the sale), the Red Bulls were the ones always trying to make a splash in the country's most saturated sports market, signing living legends such as Henry or Lothar Matthaus or longtime Mexican national team captain Rafa Marquez to some of the richest contracts in MLS.
Now, with new neighbors NYCFC making most of the noise, the Red Bulls are adjusting their approach. When it comes to big-money designated players, "We don't want to spend as much as we did before," Gerard Houllier, Head of Global Soccer for Red Bull, said last month.
Many -- including some at MLS headquarters in Manhattan -- took Houllier's statement as a sign of wavering commitment. But to hear De Grandpre tell it, it actually speaks to the organization's growing maturity.
"I think over time we have tempered expectations -- in MLS you can't come in and buy championships because of the league's structure." De Grandpre said. "It's a long-term build."
Besides patience, that requires savvy and stability.
"Any time you can get a player of Thierry Henry's caliber and you have an organization that's willing to pay that money and bring him in, you'd be stupid not to," said coach Mike Petke, a New York native who spent the majority of 13-year-playing career with his hometown club.
"That said, you look at the success of teams in this league like Kansas City or Real Salt Lake, their top players were lower-profile guys. We need to go scouring South America for that 22-23-year-old who has the ability and wants to make a name for himself, pay him in that $800,000 to $2 million range and build a team around that." (Cahill and Henry will earn a combined $8 million this year.)
For a club that hasn't enjoyed much on-field success, the goal is to get smarter, become a consistent contender, and to achieve excellence in all areas by taking advantage of the club's biggest assets -- its gem of a 25,000-seat stadium, the best building in MLS; a year-old, all-world training facility in Hanover, N.J., that houses one of the league's strongest academy programs; and its almost two-decade head start in the New York-New Jersey area.
NYCFC, which will be stuck playing at cavernous Yankee Stadium indefinitely, has none of those things.
The Red Bulls have always had trouble capturing the imagination of local soccer fans. But they have seen a bump in ticket sales following three high-profile friendlies at Red Bull Area this summer, and will more than double their sales staff in the coming weeks. It's not a coincidence.
"Having a natural -- I'm not going to call it a rival, because it's not that yet -- partner across the river, it elevates the game," De Grandpre said. "It keeps us honest to have someone competing for the same share of wallet every day, for our fans. We're respectful of them and want them to succeed because then MLS succeeds, but it's an every day reminder that we need to be on our toes."
Winning helps more than anything.
A year after capturing their first Supporters Shield, the Red Bulls now have sights set on a first MLS Cup.
They currently occupy the East's final playoff spot, but Petke knows that in this league, champions are made when the weather gets cold -- one reason he kept the core of last year's team together.
Still, with Henry out of contract at season's end, and Cahill and league scoring leader Bradley Wright-Phillips reportedly drawing interest from foreign clubs, he acknowledges that it may be this group's last shot at glory.
"It certainly feels like this is the end of a cycle that began when Thierry came here in 2010," Petke said Tuesday.
A Cup run for the Red Bulls this December would be a fitting end to that era, as another in New York is about to begin.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.