It’s been well over a week since the Red Bulls Town Hall, where 300 season ticket holders were invited to attend on a first-come, first-serve basis. The spots were taken in under an hour, and I was fortunate enough to grab one of them.
This event marked the first opportunity fans had to face their new sporting director, Ali Curtis, who controversially sacked beloved coach Mike Petke earlier this month. Accompanying Curtis were Marc de Grandpre, the general manager, and Jesse Marsch, Petke’s successor. In addition, there was a surprise appearance by starting goalkeeper Luis Robles.
Robles’s attendance sparked some controversy, as people assumed he was there only to be used as a repellent by the Front Office in order to dissuade some particularly furious fans from getting out of control. Others believed he was there as a prelude to being announced as the new captain of the team, now that French legend Thierry Henry had retired. Regardless of the purpose, Robles tried to address suspicions of being a scapegoat by announcing that he appeared voluntarily. Perhaps it was to avoid his newborn, but, in the end, who knows?
The Town Hall had truly a unique purpose. What exactly that purpose was is still a bit hazy. Fans assumed it was a chance to address their issues to the Front Office, or perhaps (although this seemed to be the minority), a chance to offer their support to the team. One thing that was certain was that there were some fans hellbent on derailing the whole event and demanding that Curtis give a direct reason for Petke’s dismissal.
Ultimately, we did not get an answer for why Petke was dismissed, despite the efforts by many of the season ticket holders to find out why. This result was partially derived from the vast interruptions, as profanities were laid down left and right, and there was more jeering than waiting for a response. However, when it was time for Curtis to address the question (he was given ample time), he simply ducked and dived whenever it was brought up.
He tried to divert the attention of fans by stating that his vision that he had set out had someone else (Marsch, maybe others) at the helm. He wanted to energize the team through a literal bottom-up approach, where the team would focus on youth development and incorporating all the resources it has to bring younger players through the ranks. All of which sounds good, but again, nothing concretely describing why Petke was fired.
The rest of the night turned out somewhat the same. People would try to get more specific with their questions, and when that didn’t help, some fans outright said, “be specific!” and “without using the word vision,” most of these requests went unheeded.
Yet, after seemingly have broken down Curtis’s defenses some answers did start arriving. The path was laid out. The team wanted to create a new style of play based on energy and analytics. Curtis conveyed to his fans that he wanted to create a “Moneyball” system that teams such as Bolton and various Spanish and Italian teams have picked up to drive forward the team.
In addition, he stated that a lot would come from understanding the play and movements of the player. Essentially, he also wants to rely on his eyes to further narrow the list of future first team.
What does raise concern, is that for the most part the analytic portion of sports has almost never worked out. Bolton has had little success implementing the system, and the Spanish teams that do the same mostly derive from financial reasons rather than trying to redefine the team’s style of play.
I asked Curtis after the Town Hall to elaborate, to which he said that they would only use certain metrics to help the evaluation process, and ultimately leaving it to experience in seeing talent. It seems like he wants to create FIFA (video game) style rankings and let the experts piece together the puzzle.
Marsch would be instrumental in such a decision process. Curtis has granted the largely raw coach his trust, which means practically nothing to the supporters. Yet, that should not make fans write off the new coach. During the Town Hall, Marsch gave some of the most direct, down to earth responses. Marsch recognized his mortality as he proclaimed that he “was ready to be sacked after one season.”
He further spoke that he understood that he may not be on the good side of many fans, and accepts it. He hopes that his on field performances will win over some people. Nonetheless, by this point he should have already won over a lot of fans. Besides one hiccup where he used a certain energy drink in a sports analogy, he has done everything in his power to assure fans that he would do anything for this team, even perhaps foreshadowing his personal expectations in the Open Cup.
Overall, the man was upbeat and optimistic, as opposed to a mostly quiet and reserved de Grandpre.
There are several key takeaways that came out of this meeting:
1) We may never know why Petke got fired: Perhaps this lack of information may be for the best. Imagine that the supporters finally got to Curtis, and he spilled all the relevant information. What if he were to say that Petke was just not a good coach, and tactically uncreative. Smearing his name like that would simply add insult to injury, cause personal, unecessary damage to Petke, and perhaps lose the trust of confidentiality trust of his peers. Should that have been the case, it would be quite lamentable. Yet, that could easily not be the case as well.
2) There will be some growing pains: A successful first season is within reach of this team. Marsch is upbeat, and according to Robles the players are also excited to get the next season started. That being said, Marsch will have a different system in place, and some of the players may have trouble getting used to his style of play, as is natural with any new coaches. This issue will be coupled with the fact that Marsch will be more liberal with his rotations than his predecessor. As he made cleared, one of his biggest concerns was that some of the younger players were not seeing enough time on the field. That may change under his leadership, which will contribute to some of the tough adjustments the team will face. Hopefully, everything will start to click once the playoffs (should the team make it) come around.
3) Our USL Pro team can be considered our B team: Whether or not you are looking forward to it. This effort is worth people’s attention. The team will take on some of the academy players, as well as the reserves in the hope that the extra playing time may signal to the team when players might be ready to join the A team. Moreover, they will be based in either New Jersey or possibly Manhattan. Should the latter be the case, Manhattan will have its first professional soccer team (even NYCFC is far from claiming that). Some of these games even may seriously be worth attending.
4) This town hall is not the last of them: Curtis specifically mentioned to me that he hopes to see more of these informal meetings, and has considered making it more frequent. When asked about creating a system like the Seattle Alliance for the Sounders, he had no comment. So whether it means that these meetings will have more meaning to them besides creating dialogue, is still up in the air. Nonetheless, this should come to the delight of many fans as most other teams simply do not offer such great opportunities to connect the fans to their team.