Red Bulls open new front in battle for hearts and minds in New York City
When the New York Red Bulls left their home field on Tuesday night, having defeated their Concacaf Champions League opponents, , a patient gaggle of El Salvadorian players waited to swap shirts in the tunnel. Despite the absence of Thierry Henry, for this night at least the remaining Red Bulls generated the nearest thing to star power in the stadium.
In a year in which their long-term ability to draw crowds has started to come under threat from some , any moment that shows the Red Bulls favourably has to be a good one for them.
Last season, the Red Bulls made a late charge to the regular-season title, under former player turned rookie head coach Mike Petke. The Supporters Shield, awarded to the team with the best finish in the regular season, was the club’s first significant trophy, but arguably more important was the way the Red Bulls, historically considered something of a soft touch, appeared to have discovered fighting qualities in their young coach’s image.
Part of that was due to , in his first full season, and part was due to the continued influence of Henry. But credit was also due to the building of a consistent team unit by Petke and sporting director Andy Roxburgh, who swore to address one of the club’s other perceived failings – an annual “rip-it-up-and-start-again” recruitment policy.
Accordingly, before the season started, there was little turnover in the locker room, with Roxburgh making a point of sitting the team down and saying: “Isn’t it good to see familiar faces?” Lessons seemed to have been learned from the relative stability of successful teams such as Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City and the LA Galaxy.
Yet there was a certain unease about the coming campaign. In the fight for the attention of New York’s sports fans, the announcement of New York City FC as had redrawn an already highly contested battleground.
And while NYCFC would stumble over their and end up making the best of the less than ideal soccer environment of Yankee Stadium for their opening few seasons at least, the team bankrolled by the considerable oil wealth of Manchester City have also spent the year making plenty of surefooted moves on the technical side. , probably the best young coach in MLS, may end up being more of a masterstroke than the splashy moves for and – important as those moves were in ensuring NYCFC will pressure the Red Bulls right out of the gates.
All those moves, and the marketing initiatives coming out of the Bronx, stood in relief to the efforts or lack of them from the Red Bulls, who are based across the Harlem and Hudson rivers in Harrison, New Jersey. The first warning sign came within days of the season starting when Jerome de Bontin, the Red Bulls’ general manager who had responsibility for marketing the team, suddenly resigned. Given his prominence within the organisation and brief time in the role, the immediate speculation was that de Bontin had become the latest such director to find himself squeezed between one of the most competitive sporting media markets in the world on one side of the Atlantic, and his Austrian owners’ unwillingness to commit significant funds on the other.
Red Bull GmbH, the parent company of the Red Bulls, and of the energy drink whose name they bear, might argue with some legitimacy that it has heavily committed to a very American “if you build it they will come” approach, by building one of the best soccer-specific stadiums in the country and staffing the team with the likes of Henry and Cahill. But the reality is that NYCFC is only the latest pressure for a team already competing against around 10 teams playing major league sports – not to mention the challenge from another quarter of , who in the US Open Cup earlier this year, much to the Red Bulls’ embarrassment.
Basically, getting people to the stadium, in Harrison, in the first place is a perennial challenge and not one that has had a great deal of financial muscle exerted on it. Intermittent Red Bulls team billboards and subway campaigns have attracted attention more for actually existing than for any discernible effect in drawing crowds.
A look at Red Bull’s wider sporting portfolio, in which the teams and sporting promotions are often themselves the billboards for raising the brand’s presence, partly explains why Red Bull GmbH are reluctant to throw more money at building the team’s presence in New York. Also, through the ranks of German football has been a distraction and financial drain for the parent group, which bought out and began the Leipzig project in 2009.
There has been an intriguing shift in the New York club’s approach to their history. For the first few years of Red Bull ownership the rebranding was absolute – with no official mention of the MetroStars incarnation. Coming as it did between the moment when the league had been on the brink of collapse, at the end of 2001, and before the arrival of David Beckham, or the first rumblings of MLS 2.0 fan culture with Toronto’s entry in 2007, it is arguable that when Red Bull bought its team there were at least reasonable business grounds, if not cultural grounds, for a scorched-earth reinvention. In the current, more stable landscape of MLS, the historical revisionism has softened.
The MetroStars name and colors, once kept alive in the stands by long-time fans in retro jerseys, have made their way deeper into the stadium. Henry made a point to customise his captain’s armband in the MetroStars colors, and the club have been tweeting a #MetroMondays hashtag of late, to reclaim some of their almost 20-year history before NYCFC start building their own.
Speaking before the Champions League game, a club official emphasised that the imminent New York rivalry isn’t going to take over from the significance of clashes with DC United, New York’s two-decade rivals, any time soon. After almost 20 years, the teams can talk with some legitimacy of organic rivalries born of multiple clashes on the field. And while the cynical might say that there is some expediency in the way a neglected past is being rediscovered right when its value can be potentially leveraged against local newcomers, the club are privately insistent that this is not a marketing initiative as such, but a desire to acknowledge their part in the league’s two decades of growth, especially with the Red Bull identity less of a novelty or provocation these days.
The club certainly feels as if it needs all the connections to its roots it can secure. The Petke/Roxburgh project has had mixed results this year. The team are still in playoff contention, but ’ club-record goal tally and the continuing, though more intermittent, cannot mask an indifferent defense that have often conspired to concede more than even a prodigious strike force can score. With Wright-Phillips having attracted interest from elsewhere, Henry possibly about to retire and Cahill also the target of post-World Cup speculation, there is a lot of talk around the league about how the club will approach the offseason and whether it will stick to its newfound policy of consistency – or once again rip up the blueprint.
Tuesday night saw a new chapter for the Red Bulls, in the Champions League group stages. Having taken an early lead against overmatched opposition through Saer Sene’s first goal since arriving from New England, the Red Bulls, fielding a mix of regulars and fringe players, made slightly heavy weather of putting CD FAS away. Attacks down the wing exposed the three man FAS defence, but the Red Bulls didn’t add to their lead until 70 minutes in, when Peguy Luyindula strode unchallenged to the edge of the box, before nudging the ball to his right for Lloyd Sam to strike a low shot which the goalkeeper could only parry into the net.
The Red Bulls saw out the game for a solid if unspectacular start and FAS were eliminated – Tuesday’s result followed two defeats by Montreal, who New York must visit next.
The Concacaf Champions League is in a growth period of its own. Since reformatting a few years ago, it has become something of a regional referendum on MLS progress, largely measured against Mexican teams – encounters limited, so far, to the knockout stages, which are timed awkwardly against the early MLS season.
The competition is not yet a true marketing draw, especially around a group game against a modest team from El Salvador. Tuesday night’s Red Bull Arena crowd of 11,569 reflected that – “There’s some educating” to be done, as a team insider put it to me about selling the Champions League to the public.
As for the “Road to Fifa Club World Cup” signs displayed prominently around the stadium, that may be the ultimate prize sought by ambitious MLS teams, alongside actually winning the Champions League. It’s certainly the type of profile-building achievement the league is seeking in its ongoing battle for global credibility.
But for the Red Bulls, “regional” success might just as well describe the intrigues and challenges of the five New York boroughs and New Jersey, never mind North and Central America. With one Concacaf hurdle cleared, the club’s attention turns back to local turf wars.