The New York Red Bulls had the best midfield in their league, then ‘team-building’ was shortchanged for “target allocation money.” Tom Bogert addresses an alarming trend.
In 2016, the New York Red Bulls assembled a perfectly balanced midfield triumvirate which was arguably the best in the MLS. All in their prime, too – no waiting around for the, unfulfilled all too regularly, promise of potential in years to come. They were the real deal, all hitting the peaks of their powers at once, together.
At the base of the midfield was club captain Dax McCarty: the footballing manifestation of a successful war general and secret service agent extraordinaire for the painfully vulnerable back line, rolled into a 5’8” dynamo of a midfielder.
Next to him was Felipe. A true no. 8, both literally, as it was the number hanging on his back, and philosophically, as he filled the box-to-box role as that shirt was destined. He is Brazilian by birth, though more Lucas Leiva than Ronaldinho, in a good way, if such a thing can be meant as a compliment.
In front of those two was Sacha Kljestan, the team’s best player. The mustachioed, lanky playmaker was almost single-handedly responsible for the Red Bulls’ creative duties. All he needed was the ball to make its way to his foot anywhere beyond the midfield stripe, and McCarty and Felipe regularly supplied him with that ammunition. He led the league in assists and finished third in MVP voting.
Behind those three, the team flew to a first place finish atop their conference but faltered in the playoff quarterfinals, losing to Montreal Impact 3-1 over two legs.
When the trio morbidly sauntered off the pitch at Red Bull Arena on that cold, bleak November night in New Jersey, fans could at least take solace in the fact that the team would be ready to go again behind those three in 2017.
As long as Kljestan, McCarty and Felipe were on the team sheet, the team would be among the favourites in the league. The goal was to bring the Red Bulls their first league championship in its history.
Except, little did they know, the trio wouldn’t play another minute together. In fact, all three would be unceremoniously traded out of the club within just 18 months.
In America, a main concept of professional sports is to encourage parity. There’s no promotion/relegation; thus the prevailing ideology of the games is that every team is designed to have a chance every year. The league is set up explicitly to not be dominated by the same handful of teams.
That point is important to consider, because the Red Bulls losing Kljestan, McCarty and Felipe is not analogous to a mid-table Bundesliga side being raided of its best players by Bayern Munich. The Red Bulls losing Kljestan, McCarty and Felipe was not about the players looking for pay boosts that the club could not provide. The Red Bulls losing Kljestan, McCarty and Felipe was because the energy drink company wanted to treat its sporting ventures like business.
But the New York Red Bulls are not an energy drink. Nor is RB Leipzig or RB Salzburg. The hardworking men and women that prop up the club are fans and not consumers. And they don’t need your damn wiiings.
On a wing and a prayer
In a vacuum, none of the transactions were that egregious.
With a detached outlook, it was a classic example of selling high. McCarty was 30 years old at the time of his trade, Kljestan was 32 at the time of his, and Felipe, though a bit younger at 27, may have been overvalued due to the smaller role he had to fill next to McCarty and Kljestan. They didn’t particularly pull many players back, mostly ‘Target Allocation Money’ which was promised to help the club recruit other stars in their place.
But context is everything.
Fans at Red Bull Arena have held some anti–Energy Drink FC grumblings in the past. They changed the club from New York/New Jersey MetroStars (what a classic early MLS name) to the New York Red Bulls. They did build a new arena, but it has largely struggled to even half-fill in recent years despite whatever attendance numbers the league reports.
The team christened that new stadium by securing the signing of Arsenal legend Thierry Henry. They also took big money swings by supplementing him with less successful additions such as Tim Cahill and Rafa Marquez, but it was the ambition that mattered to the fans.
However, despite how much of a rousing success Henry was, the club didn’t win the league and it was assumed that payroll would be lowered once Henry retired. While disappointing, it was at least understandable. Henry had been among the highest-paid players in the league. But the front office didn’t stop there.
The Red Bulls went further than its fans were comfortable with cost-cutting. McCarty and Kljestan barely made $1 million combined in 2016, yet would be traded at least in part to clear some money.
McCarty was the first to be evicted, and Kljestan and Felipe lasted just one season longer. While Target Allocation Money can’t play defensive midfield nor wear the captain’s armband like McCarty, the club promised its fans it would be repurposed for a real, breathing, kicking human organism.
For 2017, the first season after McCarty, that promise was empty. There were no additions.
Ahead of the 2018 season, Kljestan and Felipe were sent away. The Red Bulls actually got back living, breathing, kicking human organisms in those trades, but they are younger players with the elusive, largely unfulfilled, promise of potential.
They were able to sign South American playmaker Kaku in 2018 with some of the Target Allocation Money, also presumably thanks to the lighter budget left in the wake of trades. Kaku might be a great player, and he sure looks quite promising in only a handful appearances for his new club, but that’s not the point.
The point is now, due to the culture established by the front office, why should any reasonable fan believe that Kaku will still be here when he grows into the player we all hope he’ll be? Won’t he just be sold when his value grows at some point soon? Same with every other player on the roster. Why would fans trust that the organization is building a winning team rather than gathering assets to sell?
That brings us to the incredibly gargantuan, impossible to answer, question: where is the line that clubs dare not cross into the land of shamelessly treating fans as consumers?
It’s not about doing revisionist history back to a time that may, or more likely, may not have happened. In the “Good Ol’ Days” of yesteryear, players were underpaid, had a painfully inconsequential say in their own future, and were front and center to racism, sexism and hooliganism spewing from the stands.
Or, in the specific case of the MLS, there is no “Good Ol’ Days” to glorify at all. The league only came into existence in 1996.
Modern football is different from that of the 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s exponentially better and more profitable. It has (largely) evolved for the better, though there are pockets that have been sullied by greed. The question of fans vs. consumers isn’t a vessel to launch into a “back in my day…” monologue. It isn’t to slate big money transfers, big contracts or lament player empowerment. It’s about finding a middle ground between a club’s business operations and its responsibility to fans.
A popular aphorism puked out under the guise of a counterargument is the notion that “sports is a business.” The pervading scent of sour milk practically seeps out of the screen accompanying that sentence, with the hidden waft of ‘I’m better than you’ underneath just strong enough to be detected.
Sports isn’t explicitly business. If it is masquerading as such, then those leading their businesses may be the same who steered the world directly into the 2008 Market Crash with their greed and belligerent sense of infallibility.
As written in Simon Kuper and Steven Szymanski’s wonderful book Soccernomics, author Alex Flynn noted in the 1990s that the average Premier League club had the same profit as a British supermarket. A single British supermarket, not a chain of supermarkets.
“When businesspeople look at soccer, they are often astonished at how unbusinesslike the clubs are,” Kuper and Szymanski wrote.
Clubs, unlike businesses, almost never disappear. In 1929, there were 88 clubs spread across the top four divisions in England. Today, 97 percent of those teams are still in existence.
The clubs perpetually remain open because of loyalty. If sports was a business, then fans would simply change allegiance year-by-year to wherever the best product would be found.
All fans of the MLS would abandon their sinking ships and hop aboard a select few cruise lines, such as Toronto FC, Atlanta United or Seattle Sounders.
If that was the case, then the league would cease to exist. It’s that simple.
Vincent Kompany, the sympathiser
To some of the more cartoonish-villains who look to squeeze every last bit of profit out of its fans, nothing but the bottom line matters.
Focusing too hard on the bottom line in the short-term is harmful in the long-term. Even if it’s for the wrong reasons, it’s in the best interest of the business suits to treat fans less like consumers.
One instance that fans continue to gripe over is the price of admission. Ticket prices have continued to rise, at a rate higher than inflation would permit, despite the biggest clubs relying less and less on gate revenue. It regularly prices out the middle and lower class fan, the ones most responsible for creating atmosphere.
Atmosphere is something that University of Manchester MBA graduate Vincent Kompany focuses on.
“Less empty seats leads to a better TV product ([more] money) but also better atmosphere, which in turn affects testosterone levels and territorial behaviour in players, therefore increasing home advantage,” Kompany wrote on Twitter. “There’s financial value in every added league point too.”
Oh, yeah, Vincent Kompany also moonlights as the captain of Manchester City.
To go a step further on what the academic Kompany argues, the act of goodwill for a club to lower prices would translate to an improved morale for the fans. That helps with the atmosphere, which adds value, as well as game-day spending, which adds revenue.
“The Premier League is unique, financially dominant and global,” Kompany wrote in a separate tweet. “I imagine that a general decline in stadium atmosphere can damage the value of that product. Link to ticket pricing, seating location and safe standing is almost inevitable. Long-term gains vs short-term profits, eternal dilemma.”
Another way clubs gouge fans is at the concession stands in the bowels of the stadium. This isn’t a football-specific problem, as it’s largely even worse in American professional sports. Pints of beer are immensely upmarked while you’d never spend more on chicken fingers or meat pies outside of a stadium.
But that’s just the way it is, right? Rudimentary supply and demand. Just a necessary evil of taking in a game.
Well, that may not be the case.
In the United States, MLS side Atlanta United and NFL franchise Atlanta Falcons share a brand new stadium, Mercedes-Benz Arena, which opened just last year. They decided to do something different: offer prices on goods that more resemble literally everywhere else in society than what’s common practice in stadiums. And It worked.
The New York Times detailed that ‘despite a 50 percent decrease in prices for food and nonalcoholic drinks’ compared to prices at their old arena, the ‘amount spent per fan increased by 16 percent’.
Coincidentally, everything about how Atlanta United conducts its business runs congruent with their fan-friendly stadium prices.
The expansion side smashed expectations in 2017 and laid a blueprint for fellow newcomers to follow: don’t play cautious, dare to go for it. The team scored the second most goals in the league while playing with a dangerously seductive level of panache and flair.
This offseason, they doubled down. They were able to hold onto their prized assets then broke the MLS transfer record on an Argentine attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco then traded for U.S. international Darlington Nagbe.
As a result, the top three single-game attendance listings are all of Atlanta’s doing at Mercedes-Benz Arena.
Elsewhere, when the Red Bulls dumped McCarty, it was hugely unexpected. Fans felt strong emotions from not being able to give a proper send-off to a man who meant more to the club than any player this decade, bar Henry.
Upon McCarty’s first visit to Red Bull Arena after his trade, fans were sure to give him the send-off he truly deserved. Despite two of the three sections of Ultras serving bans from the club, disallowing them to erect a tifo, one still floated up. It was an eleven of hearts. McCarty wore the no. 11 shirt so admirably. Behind it, a defiant “METRO LEGEND” banner flew.
The Red Bulls won 2-1, but the result was inconsequential. That night wasn’t about picking up three points; it was about closure between McCarty and the fans.
After the final whistle blew, the arena sung for McCarty. The player acknowledged the love, and heartfully clapped back. Then he ran towards the tunnel.
That alone would have been an adequate show of appreciation, as well as his words leading up to the game. But he didn’t approach the tunnel to leave. He was grabbing a sharpie marker.
McCarty then took a full, slow lap around the pitch. He signed every piece of scarf, jersey, shirt, hat or ball someone put in front of him, smiled for every picture and said “thank you” to every heartfelt message. The whole ordeal must have taken about a half hour.
McCarty knew – McCarty always knew, better than most players and certainly better than suits in the front office. He understood that those faces surrounding him, full of emotion, weren’t consumers. They were fans. He treated them as such. They cared about him, and he cared about them.
One word aptly captures the essence of that scene: genuine.
It produced the best moment at the club that season, far better than anything that Target Allocation Money had done in his place.