New York, New York

Big Apple Circus: NYCFC, Red Bulls, and Don Garber

MLS Commissioner Don Garber is desperate to make a splash in the country's biggest media market, but so far the league's efforts in New York have resulted in a three-ring circus.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 08, 2015
8:03 AM
MAYBE IT'S THE WATER. Maybe it’s the bright lights of the city. I don’t know what it is. But in a city that hosts sad sack franchises like the Jets, Knicks, and Mets, two Major League Soccer teams are winning the race to become the Big Apple’s most dysfunctional team.

Will New York City FC take the title? Will the New York Red Bulls? Right now it's too close to call.

By now there is little to add to the NYCFC/Frank Lampard mess other than to note that Don Garber’s detached response didn’t reveal much of anything and seemed to only make things worse. All the initial concerns about Manchester City getting involved with MLS proved to be well-founded and all the assurances from Garber that everything would be OK proved to be wishful thinking. That’s an impressive amount of dysfunction for a team that hasn’t managed to kick a ball yet.

The Red Bulls, however, are not to be outdone. In its 19-year history, the Red Bull/Metrostar organization has a monopoly on the worst personnel decisions in MLS history—and late Tuesday it outdid itself, firing the popular and successful head coach Mike Petke. This horrific decision hurts the team on the field, leaves it shorthanded due to the ill-advised timing, and most importantly devastates the loyal fan base that has stood by the team through two decades of ineptitude.

All in all there have been 14 different coaching tenures in the 18 seasons of club history (including two interim stints by Richie Williams). Of all these changes, the franchise has landed on two types of coaches: out-of-touch foreigners who are hired for no good reason or talented American coaches who are fired for no good reason. But with Petke’s dismissal, the Red Bulls have sunk to a new low.


To understand why Petke’s dismissal was beyond belief, a brief history of the franchise is warranted. In the inaugural MLS season in 1996, the Metrostars hired former Cosmos manager Eddie Firmani. He lasted eight games. That started a revolving door, a who’s who of coaching, that yielding awful results.

Big-name coaches came on board, including Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil during its 1994 World Cup triumph, and Carlos Queiroz who coached Portugal and Real Madrid. Former U.S. national team coach Bora Milutinovic also had his turn. All of these choices proved to be horrible. The Metrostars/Red Bulls have actually made the right hire on several occasions—New Jersey native Bob Bradley and New Yorker Bruce Arena both leap to mind—but then both were inexplicably fired. After Arena was axed, he moved to Los Angeles and turned the Galaxy into a league powerhouse that has won three titles.

Juan Carlos Osorio failed to accomplish much of anything during his tenure and then Swedish manager Hans Backe had his troubles in Harrison too.

So along came Petke, a man who had never been a head coach but was a club legend in his days as a member of the Metrostars. What was different about him was that he actually wanted the job. Following Backe, the Red Bulls coaching job was toxic and thankless but it was Petke’s dream job and he brought passion to a team that definitely needed it. The fans were invigorated and there was palpable energy at Red Bull Arena.

In his first year as head coach, Petke did what none of the other expensive coaches with impressive resumes managed to do. He won a title. The 2013 Supporters Shield was the first major trophy is the team’s history. The young Petke also showed he could handle elite players like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill—even surviving run-ins with each.

The 2014 season was not as smooth as his first but Petke still managed to get the team to the Conference Final with playoff wins against arch rival D.C. United and defending champions Sporting Kansas City. Over two seasons he amassed an impressive 30-19-19 record.

Petke won on the field and he also created a bond with the team’s fans—primarily because he was one of them. As a result, he achieved the unlikely and made it fun and exciting for fans that were in a sense supporting a team that is a walking billboard for an Austrian energy drink.

Was Petke the perfect coach? Of course not. And his tactical knowledge has room to improve. Still, the team had been there before with reputed tactical wizards and the results were never good.

New York Red Bulls General Manager Ali Curtis has been on the job for a matter of days and he has already managed to alienate and enrage the fans. The new coach will be Jesse Marsch, who is a good coach that served assistant to Bob Bradley on the national team and got a raw deal in Montreal—his only coaching job in the league. It’s not Marsch’s fault but he has to assemble a coaching staff with the draft fast approaching and preseason set to start by the end of the month—all while the team’s supporters are upset and skeptical. It’s a tough situation for him to succeed.

For MLS commissioner Don Garber, New York City, the biggest market in America, has become, well, a circus. He pushed so hard to get two teams in the New York area and now he finally has them. But even he must be wondering if these two teams are driving away fans because of the rampant dysfunction.

In the Bronx you have a farm team for Manchester City that lacks its own identity, stadium, and apparently any sort of authority over its players. Across the Hudson River you have a team owned by an out-of-touch European company that flirts with moving in the right direction only to disappoint its fans time and time again.

Red Bulls fans have had it and New York City fans don’t even want to start.

Garber envisioned New York to be a great European-style soccer city like London, Madrid, or Rome—with multiple clubs and intense rivalries. Instead, the New York area has become soccer’s equivalent of the Middle East where chaos and disorder rule and it threatens tremendous progress made throughout the rest of the league.

When you look at all that Major League Soccer has going for it right now, it's actually impressive. Youth academies are gradually moving in the right direction. Recent expansion teams have been welcome additions, attendances have gone up, and the general quality of the product on the field is also improving. Transparency is a major problem but it is fixable. Perhaps the collective bargaining agreement negotiations will help remedy some of the league's ongoing issues.

But the ugly situation in the country’s largest media market? The fans are feeling betrayed and disenfranchised, and it looks like this will be hanging in the air for quite a long time.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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