“We had a saying in the movement that we don't trust anybody over 30.”
– 1960s activist Jack Weinberg
The New York Red Bulls’ latest transaction is not just a big trade, it’s a head-turner. But put into historical context, the deal that sent Kljestan and a stack of Targeted Allocation Money to Orlando City SC in exchange for Carlos Rivas and Tommy Redding is actually par for the course in RBNY’s modern era.
Red Bulls fans hated to see TH14 call time on his storied career, and they were crushed to see “the Ginger Ninja” shipped off to a conference rival. Many of them rose up in open revolt after club legend Mike Petke was fired in order to install Jesse Marsch as head coach, and plenty will surely be nonplussed by the decision to part with a star playmaker as productive and committed as Kljestan.
But the Red Bulls have a plan. And after nearly knocking off all-conquering Toronto FC in their memorable Eastern Conference Semifinal clash in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, they’re not about to abandon it. In fact, they’re doubling down.
Following closely in tune with their parent company, which owns a chain of sibling clubs in Germany, Austria and beyond, RBNY have laid down a clear identity in recent years. You probably know it well by now: The relentless high press, hounding opposing teams at every possible moment, seeking to impose a certain speed and style of play on every match.
“This is an energy drink. From the beginning it’s been clear Red Bull … want to honor playing a more up-tempo dynamic game, and incorporating young players,’’ Marsch himself said at the time of his hiring. “That fits well with who I am as a coach.
“I also understand there are certain questions from the fanbase, but my answer to that is this: innovation.”
Some have taken to calling it “Ralfball,” after Ralf Rangnick, RBNY’s “global sporting director” as well as the sporting director at RB Leipzig, the upstarts who’ve gleefully attacked the Bundesliga hierarchy since earning promotion to Germany’s top flight in 2016.
Huan Nguyen profiled the Ralfball phenomenon and its effects on RBNY in a fascinating, in-depth piece on Once a Metro a little over two years ago, and the fundamentals remain.
“Aggressive forward defending and pressing. Playing in private possession and directly to the front, lateral and back passes are rather not so much in demand,” Rangnick once told Die Welt, speaking of the desire “to pull a red thread through” the Red Bull global empire.
“The aim is to develop teams, no soloists.”
The Red Bulls way doesn’t just exploit opponents’ mistakes on the pitch; it seeks to maximize organizational strengths and create efficiency wherever possible. McCarty and Kljestan anchored a dominant RBNY side in 2015 and 2016, but if they can mount a menacing MLS Cup push without the former, why won’t they be able to do so without the latter as well? Both have been dealt at or near their maximum market value. It's a young man's game, or so they say.
The likes of Tyler Adams and Aaron Long made big steps up last season, and Marsch probably fancies doing similar work with Rivas (pictured below) and Redding, two talented players who have mostly disappointed in Orlando. Kljestan and Marsch were once teammates at Chivas USA and seemed to have a mostly good relationship, just as with Dax. It’s not personal, it’s asset management.
Teams. No soloists.
As for the Lions? This trade shows us a bit more of what they’re about, too. This team – the organization and city as a whole, really – want to win now, and public statements about growth and patience aside, that’s pretty much been the case since they hit the top flight, whether it’s Adrian Heath or Jason Kreis in the technical area.
On this occasion they’re picking up a proven MLS standout who makes sense as the attacking tip of Kreis' 4-4-2 diamond formation – more sense than Kaká did, that seems certain. And they're done waiting for Rivas and Redding to figure things out.
City did not blink at Sporting KC’s steep price for Dom Dwyer. They’ve shown no hurry to cash in on Cyle Larin on the European transfer market. They even risked a tampering charge from D.C. United as they made sure to outrace the capital club to acquire Antonio Nocerino in 2016.
And now they’ve made things happen to get the top assist provider in modern league history in a purple kit, apparently outbidding LAFC and Minnesota United. Only time will tell as to whether this pans out for the playoff-starved Lions, but they’re not short on ambition.