Nine months is all it took for the New York Red Bulls to go from the peak of MLS to the lowest depths the league has ever seen. The steep fall from MLS Cup finalist to a club threatening to be the worst in MLS history was sure to cause a few career casualties, and the first was head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who resigned on Friday.
So why does instability still haunt a franchise that was supposed to change its losing culture once the deep-pocketed owners from Austria bought the club? As much as the nightmare of the 2009 season is the fault of everyone running the current club, the reality is that the franchise is still paying for the mistakes Red Bull made when it first bought the team.
When Red Bull purchased the MetroStars from AEG in 2006, it handed the operation of the club to a marketing executive from the soft drink company. It didn't find an established soccer administrator, or someone even familiar with the operation of a pro sports team. No, the club handed the reins to Marc de Grandpre, who was as unprepared to run a pro sports team as anybody in recent memory.
The result was a series of mistakes that ultimately helped lead the Red Bulls to this point in their brief and disappointing history:
-- They wasted their first half-season as owners by making Mo Johnston a lame-duck head coach before finally dumping him in the summer of 2006.
-- They hired Bruce Arena and had him take charge well before he believed he was ready. (Instead of taking an extended break after eight years as U.S. national team head coach, Arena jumped right in with the Red Bulls.)
-- They forced Arena to resign little more than a year later, after a revolt among veteran players gave De Grandpre the excuse to force out a coach he never developed a good relationship with.
-- They clumsily courted Juan Carlos Osorio to be their new head coach, despite Osorio's being under contract with the Fire, a move that cost the Red Bulls a significant settlement (including a first-round draft pick).
-- They handed their soccer operations to Osorio and then-technical director Jeff Agoos, despite the fact Osorio had only been back in the United States for six months after having spent six years coaching in Europe and South America, and despite the fact Agoos' player personnel experience consisted of just one year serving as a glorified secretary for Arena.
It was that last decision that ultimately doomed the club to this year's failure, because in the two years Osorio and Agoos have been in charge of player personnel the pair has produced a steady stream of terrible signings and wasted draft picks. Last year's trip to the MLS Cup final helped provide the illusion that the team was in good shape, but all it did was mask the fact the team hadn't improved its personnel at all.
Osorio showed why he was considered (and is still considered by many) a quality coach by helping guide the Red Bulls to last year's MLS Cup final after a disappointing regular season, but he ultimately had a team led by players brought in by Arena, such as Juan Pablo Angel, Dave van den Bergh, Kevin Goldthwaite, Dane Richards and John Wolyniec.
The play of Arena's players helped mask the fact the team's signings last year (under Osorio and Agoos) had all fallen flat. When this year's batch of acquisitions (Alfredo Pacheco, Khano Smith, Dominic Oduro and Carlos Johnson) failed to deliver, and when every one of the team's established veterans underperformed, the Red Bulls were doomed. The result has been a nightmare of a season: a 2-16-4 overall record and 13 matches without a victory; a first-round exit from the CONCACAF Champions League; and dwindling attendances with fed-up fans either no longer showing up or showing up with paper bags over their heads in shame.
So who is really to blame for this mess? While the seeds for this nightmare season were sewn back in 2006 by an overmatched executive, and while Osorio and Agoos share the blame for building this year's mess of a team (which led to Osorio's resignation, and which will cost Agoos his sporting director position), Red Bull is ultimately to blame for setting the table for everything that happened, including the establishment of a power structure that made Agoos and Osorio equals and left them to fend for themselves.
Arena, who has since taken over as head coach and general manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy, voiced concerns more than a year ago about Red Bull being an absentee MLS owner based in Europe, concerns that seem even more valid now.
"It's an interesting challenge, a business challenge managing a team from Europe," Arena said back in May 2008. "That's essentially what it is. It will take time to get that whole thing right.
"I think it's a tough challenge. One of my views of success in this league is to have local influence both from the front office and the ownership, that kind of thing where you're really embedded in the community.
"I think that's an important part. The teams in the league that are successful, not necessarily winning championships all the time, but having a good following, because they're in the community every day and they've built a tradition. That's important.
"Red Bull essentially was an expansion team when I took over. It just takes time to find the right way about doing business."
Some three years since buying the team formerly known as the MetroStars, Red Bull is still trying to find that right way, though the team's current managing director, Erik Stover, disputes the notion that Red Bull has left the club in overall worse shape than it found it.
"I would call the franchise successful since Red Bull purchased the franchise," Stover said. "Though, this season has certainly been a challenge with our on-field performances. For people that have followed the team for a long time, Red Bull has done a lot to change the culture. The MetroStars used to practice in a parking lot and sometimes they would get on a bus not knowing what field they would train on. Red Bull has invested in a number of things to improve the franchise for the long term."
Stover also pointed to the club's improvements under Red Bull, from the securing of a temporary practice facility, to the investment in Juan Pablo Angel as a designated player and to the construction of Red Bull Arena (which will open at the start of the 2010 season). In addition, the club's investment in its player development academy (considered one of the best in MLS) and the doubling of its season-ticket base is further evidence according to Stover that the club, at least off the field, is headed in the right direction.
"Red Bull has committed the resources to make the organization successful," Stover said. "We have had to overcome a number of years of mediocre performance and it takes time to turn it around. It's not an overnight project."
Whether or not Red Bull avoids repeating its early mistakes will depend largely on what Stover does next. Much like his predecessor (Stover replaced De Grandpre in May 2008), Stover came into his position with no sports team management experience (his expertise was stadium management, something that has shown in his successful work in completing Red Bull Arena). Stover has helped clean up the mess that the team's business side had become, but his most important task lies ahead.
Whether Stover and the Red Bulls will succeed will be decided in their selection of the next men to run the soccer operations. Those decisions are even more vital than they were three years ago, because the club is set to open its $200 million stadium. While the new stadium will provide a boost (it will easily be the biggest and most impressive soccer-specific stadium in MLS), nothing short of a strong team in 2010 will help erase the stain left by the 2009 season.
Johnston, the first coach of the Red Bulls era, preaches patience. Now the director of soccer for Toronto FC, Johnston believes Red Bull is an organization that could succeed in MLS, but one that must learn from its mistakes, while also avoiding the mistakes made by so many in MLS.
"When you're building something it takes time," Johnston said. "Salzburg needs to give the next guy in charge three years, and someone with experience in [MLS], not an outsider."
The next men in charge will have every chance to succeed. The Red Bulls have a second designated player slot, two first-round draft picks and the allocation money that comes with missing the playoffs. New York fans surely remember how quickly the MetroStars went from laughingstock in 1999 to a game away from an MLS Cup trip in 2000. A repeat of that turnaround is possible, but only if Stover hires the right men for the job. If he does, the 2010 Red Bulls could be the league's biggest success story. If he doesn't, he will join the long list of men who failed in their attempts to make Red Bull's investment in MLS a successful one, failures that Red Bull would ultimately have to take the blame for.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.