Analysis

Identity crisis: What's the end game for the New York Red Bulls?

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It's time to stop calling New York a big club. That approach is OK ... it's just a weird one to take in the U.S.' biggest market.

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The New York Red Bulls are a notch – or two – below Major League Soccer’s biggest clubs.

Just in case their comparatively low payroll and lack of big-name stars hadn’t already made that abundantly clear, the Red Bulls cemented their status in the rung below Toronto, Atlanta, the LAs, Seattle and NYCFC of the league by trading Sacha Kljestan to Orlando, the second offseason in a row in which the team has dealt its captain.

Shipping away MLS’ back-to-back assist king isn’t indefensible, but it is indicative of how the Red Bulls view themselves. The team is more interested in pushing young players who might one day be sold than in retaining older stars, even if that means worse odds at winning MLS Cup in the short-term. We saw that last year when the team traded Dax McCarty to Chicago to create more playing time for Tyler Adams and Sean Davis, and we’re seeing it in action again as Kljestan packs his bags for Florida and the Red Bulls reportedly continue to chase 22-year-old Argentine attacker Alejandro Romero Gamarra.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach. In fact, it’s beneficial on several levels. No one can argue with New York investing in its academy or opening minutes for the wildly-talented Adams, and the club’s strategy of playing and selling its kids (see: Miazga, Matt) should be beneficial to the U.S. men’s national team and MLS. That’s the same type of behavior for which we regularly praise teams like FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, and the Red Bulls deserve credit for it, too.

But that style feels a little different in New York than in Utah.

This is one of MLS’s original SuperClubs©, the team that signed Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and Tim Cahill before bringing players of that stature to MLS was a regular thing. The moves didn’t always work out. In fact, they mostly fell short. But no one could ever question that the Red Bulls would be among the league’s biggest spenders and flashiest clubs – tangible signs of ambition.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Those days are gone. Despite being the league’s original club in the country’s biggest market, New York now behaves more like Portland, Orlando or Kansas City than NYCFC, Toronto or Atlanta. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does mean the Red Bulls will have a harder time winning trophies than their more ambitious counterparts.

In that way, the Red Bulls are a bit of a microcosm of the league’s broader identity struggle. Here’s one of two teams in MLS’ biggest market, a team the league wants to pump as part of a fierce rivalry with NYCFC, and it has chosen a strategy that, regardless of its merits, limits its ceiling. As MLS determines whether it’ll be a selling league, a league of choice, or both (if such a thing is even possible), the Red Bulls saw their New York platform and decided to take a small-market approach.

That might annoy some folks at MLS HQ who wish the Red Bulls would try to do more with the New York market, but those same people have to be happy with what the club is doing with its academy and the fact that it appears to be at the forefront of pushing players to Europe.

Some might want the Red Bulls to try to be bigger, but it’s hard to argue too much with their model. The club might not be all it can be, but it’s not exactly all bad, either. That feels like a pretty good approximation of the league in 2018.

Again, for the Red Bulls, this is all fine. As long as the club keeps producing talented youngsters and has a talented coach like Jesse Marsch, it should remain competitive. New York should continue to consistently make the playoffs out of the East and occasionally challenge for the Supporters’ Shield. Given the funky nature of the playoffs, the Red Bulls could make the odd run at MLS Cup, too.

But as they continue to trade away their biggest names a year early instead of a year late, and as they likely look to continue to sell high on their young stars, the Red Bulls will have a lower ceiling than the biggest clubs in the league. That clearly works for them, and that’s good. But it is preplexing for a New York-market team, and anyone harboring any illusions that the Red Bulls remain among the biggest clubs in MLS needs to rethink their pecking order.

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