In years past, the days following the end of the Red Bulls season were filled with change. The revolving door began to move and management, coaches and players paraded through it. A year or two later, the process began again.
In his time as a player, and in his years working for Major League Soccer, Red Bulls Sporting Director Ali Curtis saw that the teams with the most coaching and roster consistency tended to have the most success. And when he was hired by the Red Bulls following the 2014 season, consistency was a major part of his plan.
On Monday, when Curtis addressed the media following the team’s disappointing elimination from the playoffs one game shy of reaching the MLS Cup Final, he announced that coach Jesse Marsch, team captain Dax McCarty and the core players that helped the Red Bulls win the Supporters’ Shield with the league’s best record (18-10-6), set franchise records for wins and home wins (12), and lead MLS in goals scored (62), would be returning next season.
“Jesse’s under contract with the Red Bulls, he’ll be back next year,” Curtis said. “We’re looking forward to him being back next year. He had a great season, as did a lot of our staff, as did our players, so Jesse will be back next year. I’m not going to get into the details regarding his contract, but he’ll be back next year. We're happy to have him and he had a fantastic season.”
McCarty wasn’t such a sure bet. The 28-year-old defensive midfielder, named along with goalkeeper Luis Robles to the MLS Best XI on Sunday, is coming off the best season of his 10-year career. But with a salary of $262,500, and with young players such as Sean Davis pushing for playing time, there was no guarantee the Red Bulls would pick up the option year on his contract.
“With Dax, we’re going to pick up his option,” Curtis confirmed. “He's a guy that was important for our team, and again, when you talk about bringing back the core, he's a guy that we want to bring back.”
Despite his disappointment of the team’s elimination by the Columbus Crew, McCarty was glad to hear the news.
“In profession sports you never know what’s going to happen until it actually happens,” McCarty said. “If you would have asked me what my opinion was, yes, I thought they were going to pick up my option. I was 95 percent sure, but until it actually happens I can’t say if it’s true or not.
“I’m obviously very excited to hear the news. This is probably the best locker room I’ve ever been a part of. The atmosphere from the front office, to the coaches, to all the way down to the guys in the locker room, it’s not just great players, but it’s great people and guys you want to be around day-in and day-out. To know that I’m going to be here for at least one more season is great news.”
Neither Curtis nor Marsch would name which core players they were talking about, but the club is clearly focused on keeping a nucleus to continue the success while also investing in the academy teams. That would mean that players such as Matt Miazga, Damien Perrinelle, Kemar Lawrence, Sacha Kljestan, Luis Robles, Felipe, Lloyd Sam, Gonzalo Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips, many of whom had career years this season, will be building blocks next year and beyond.
“We want to bring the core players back next year,” Curtis said. “There's always a challenge and it's always tricky in the offseason, but we firmly believe that there is a correlation between consistency and success, so that's important to us. It's a pillar. In terms of our identity and the types of player characteristics that fit who we are, we're a very high-pressing team so it's important that we have a lot of players on our team that can cover a lot of ground at all moments of the game and throughout the entire season, so we're looking for those types of players that fit who we are, that check the box in terms of their personalities and how they are as human beings, not just how they are as soccer players, and so we'll look for those guys.
“We feel good about the team, we've got some depth in a lot of different areas, so aside from the position specifics of where we're going to add numbers, I think we feel good about the team right now and there are a couple targets that we'll have and we'll make a couple signings as early as the first part of January, but all in all we feel pretty good about the team.”
Curtis said there would be changes, some of which could be announced as early as today, as the team searches for additional pieces that will enable them to advance past the Eastern Conference Finals, which has been a stumbling block the past two seasons.
“I think the starting point is we’re going to, Ali and I, try to keep this group together, and I think that that’s going to be a challenge, but one that I think we're hopeful to be able to complete,” Marsch said. “For me right now the emphasis isn’t so much on what pieces we need to get as how we continue to take the process forward, because some of what will determine where we need to improve will be how we get through containing the current roster we have and keeping all these pieces.
“Clearly we have a great foundation for the future. I think there’s some really good young players within our mix. We’ll have more academy players I think that we'll try to figure out a way to include for next year, and there’s probably the opportunity for maybe one or two more pieces to add, but for right now the important thing is we have certain things that are on our radar, but the emphasis is certainly to keep this group together.”
Having watched other teams bring in high-priced, big-name players, some of which paid off while others didn’t, Curtis was asked if the Red Bulls would be in that market again despite moving away from the Thierry Henrys and Tim Cahills from last season and going with a more team-oriented, economically-sound roster. He wasn’t against it – if the right player came along.
“We're going to go out and get players that we feel fit who we are as an organization,” Curtis said. “(Players that are) team oriented, they’re driven, they’re creative, they cover a lot of ground, they’re good guys in the locker room, those types of things.
“Those are the characteristics that we look at when we look to add players and when we look to add staff to our organization, so in terms of whether or not the guy has a quote, unquote, 'big name,' that's not as important as to making sure that this is a human being that can fit within our organization.”
The Red Bulls were emotionally driven this season based on what they felt was a lack of respect following a very successful 2014 campaign. That chip on their shoulder carried them a long way this season, but they will need new motivation in a 2016 season that will also include CONCACAF Champions League play.
“What I would say is having a chip on our shoulder is because our guys are hungry and we’re driven and when teams or individuals count us out, we have the type of group that wants to persevere and we want to win and we want to perform and we want to compete,” Curtis said. “That has a lot to do with the staff that we’ve brought within the organization and also has a lot to do with the players that are part of the organization.
“The success that we’ve had this season with the on-field results has been tremendous in terms of what we’ve been able to achieve from a performance standpoint and also from a results standpoint, but really the success that we’ve had this year is as an organization there’s certain descriptive terms that are used to describe the New York Red Bulls that have never been used before and that’s innovation, that’s creativity, that’s hard work, that’s integrity.
“I truly believe that those words are used to describe this organization in a completely different way than they’ve ever been used in the past and we feel really good about that and we’ve all worked hard to try to establish that over the last 10-11 months and that will continue so we’ve made a lot of progress this year, we still have a lot of work to do, but we'll look forward to doing that in the offseason and in the preseason and we'll get back at it for next year.”
“Clearly this has been a successful year,” he said. “Not as successful as we all had hoped in winning MLS Cup, but going into next year the biggest challenge is going to be maintaining that hunger, maintaining that chip on the shoulder, maintaining the approach and the commitment and then actually establishing it at even higher levels so that we take all of the foundation and the good things that have been built this year and now make them even better next year, and there’s potential for all that to happen, but it’s hard work.
“A lot of the assumption after a year – guys will have time off, they’ll go away, we’ll come together next year – and the assumption will be that a lot of the things that we achieved this year were a lot easier to get to than they were. So for us to now understand that from the start next year that we’re going to have a target on our back, people are going to know we’re a good team, they’re going to know how we play, they’re going to know our players, the whole bit, means that we’ve got to be bigger and better at what we do and we’ve got to be hungry to strive for even more.”