Dax McCarty brought the bizarre situation surrounding Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis back into the limelight earlier this week, when the new Fire midfielder, speaking to the media for the first time since he was surprisingly traded from New York to Chicago in January, said that he thought it’s clear that Curtis is “no longer a part of the decision-making process” at the club.
“I don’t think Ali Curtis had anything to do with the decision,” McCarty told reporters in his first interview from the Fire's preseason camp in Florida. “I think that’s fairly obvious with the way the club is treating Ali right now. It’s clear for everyone to see that he’s no longer a part of the decision-making process going on at the Red Bulls, which is a little surprising to me considering he put together two years of one of the best teams in MLS that won the Supporters’ Shield and won an Eastern Conference.”
McCarty was referencing the recent report from Metro’s Kristian Dyer that Curtis is no longer acting sporting director of the Red Bulls and that assistant coach Denis Hamlett has been serving as the point person for New York’s personnel department. Dyer also reported that the Red Bulls and Curtis were negotiating a settlement for Curtis to leave the club.
Four sources at four different clubs have confirmed most of Dyer’s reporting to me over the past 10 days, adding that Curtis has not been with the club at all during their preseason. No source was able to confirm to me that New York and Curtis were engaged in talks about a settlement package, though all four indicated they thought that was likely.
Of course, the Curtis situation dates back a little further than the preseason. The former league official, who was hired by New York in December 2014, was not present at the SuperDraft in January, leaving Southern California just as head coach Jesse Marsch was arriving in LA. Marsch missed the start of Combine/SuperDraft week while in Europe meeting with Red Bull executives, a trip that I reported included talks for Marsch to become head coach of the organization’s Austrian club, Red Bull Salzburg.
Furthermore, Curtis hasn’t been quoted in a Red Bulls press release since the club announced that they’d re-signed defender Aurelien Collin on Jan. 4. Last year, it was standard practice for Curtis to be quoted in Red Bulls releases regarding player transactions. Since the Collin news, however, he’s been conspicuously absent, with Marsch now quoted in most of the club’s subsequent roster announcements.
Through it all, the Red Bulls have been steadfast in their insistence that Curtis is still with the club and that there haven’t been any changes to their sporting department. A club spokesman reiterated that to me in a phone call on Wednesday, and the same spokesman told me previously that there was nothing to the absence of Curtis quotes in press releases.
All the club sources I spoke to expressed some serious surprise about the entire situation. Everyone I’ve spoken to is in the dark as to why the Red Bulls would move on from Curtis, and all four sources said that the people they speak to in Red Bull organization have been extremely tight-lipped. That’s not necessarily uncommon for a matter of this magnitude, but it is a bit odd for there to be no real news leak on a situation that’s dragged on for nearly a month. All of the sources pointed to that silence as evidence that they think there is truth to Dyer's report that Curtis and the Red Bulls are negotiating the terms of his exit.
Despite the Red Bulls’ insistence to the contrary, there's an awful lot of smoke surrounding this saga, if not outright fire just yet, fueled some more by Dyer’s report on Jan. 31.
Back with SKC, Palmer-Brown preps for important 2017
It didn’t come with a whole lot of fanfare, but a top young American player made a potentially significant return to MLS this winter, as Erik Palmer-Brown moved back to Sporting Kansas City after spending 2016 on loan with Portuguese giants FC Porto.
Palmer-Brown had a productive stint in Portugal, playing and starting 11 matches in the second half of the 2015-16 season to help Porto’s reserves to their first second-division title before minor hamstring injuries and a broken foot limited him to just six matches in the first half of the 2016-17 season. Porto were interested in permanently acquiring the SKC academy product, but their financial troubles prevented them from meeting Sporting’s asking price, according to a league source.
“I took a lot out of it. I think I grew up a little in the aspect of soccer being an all-day type of thing,” Palmer-Brown told me over the phone on Wednesday. “Because for me, after training at Kansas City, I could go home after a bad training and go hang out with friends and really get it off my mind. And at Porto I didn’t have that luxury, I guess.
“It was different, but I think it was a good different. It was a great experience to be over there.”
Now the 19-year-old center back is back in the States, prepping for a year that could play a huge role in determining the direction of his career.
On the club level, Palmer-Brown will look to turn into a consistent contributor in 2017, the final year of his MLS contract. He has 10 career regular season appearances for SKC, including seven in 2015, but has never truly been a regular part of Peter Vermes’ rotation. The Homegrown player will look to change that this year, when he’ll battle with Matt Besler, Ike Opara and Kevin Ellis for minutes in the middle of Sporting’s backline.
Internationally, the stakes might be even higher.
Palmer-Brown is currently with the US Under-20s at a training camp in Florida. A member of the US team at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup, he was selected for the upcoming CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Costa Rica on Thursday. The top four finishers in that tournament will qualify for the U-20 World Cup, which will be held in May and June in South Korea. Solid performances with the US would put Palmer-Brown firmly in the international shop window and give him a good base to work off of with Sporting.
Of course, spending so much time with the US puts Palmer-Brown in a bit of an interesting spot with SKC. He’s been gone for the majority of the club’s preseason and won’t return to the team until after opening day.
A trip to the World Cup later in the spring would mean another month or so away from Sporting. All that time on international duty will likely make it tougher for him to get playing time in MLS, especially since he’s fighting three experienced teammates for minutes.
Palmer-Brown is aware of all of that, but doesn’t seem too concerned by it. He said he’s focused almost entirely on the U-20s at the moment, and that he hasn’t had a talk with Vermes about his expected role with SKC this year. He’s bullish on the US’s chances, saying the current crop of U-20s compares well to the 2015 team that made it to the World Cup quarterfinals before being eliminated in penalties by eventual champions Serbia.
“I think a lot of players here know that, but I think we all have a lot of pride in what we’re about to do. We want to qualify for this, we all want to go to a World Cup,” he said. “I think all of us here knew the sacrifice of leaving our club teams, I think it’s something that’s in the back of our minds, but that’s not our worry. Our worry is to qualify for the World Cup.
“I think it’s just a really good group. The sky is the limit. We’re just ready to get out there already.”
Details on Lennon's loan to RSL
I got a few more details on the transaction from RSL GM Craig Waibel on Wednesday:
First, the deal does not include an option for Salt Lake to permanently acquire Lennon at the end of the loan. That doesn’t mean RSL can’t buy Lennon from Liverpool, of course, only that there’s no set price for the attacker, whose Liverpool contract will expire at the end of the 2017-18 EPL season.
If Lennon, 19, has a solid 2017, that price would likely be significant. The former RSL-Arizona academy player was solid with Liverpool’s reserves this season, recording two goals in 12 appearances for their U-23s. He’s currently in camp with the US Under-20s, who will attempt to qualify for this summer’s U-20 World Cup at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Costa Rica later this month. If the US qualifies and Lennon shows well at the U-20 World Cup, his value on the world market would only go up.
Second, Lennon will not be classified as a Homegrown player for RSL this year. According to Waibel, that’s primarily because he’s on loan and his rights aren’t owned by RSL. While he won’t officially be designated as a Homegrown, Waibel said that Lennon will be listed on Salt Lake’s Reserve Roster, meaning his salary won’t count towards the salary cap.
Waibel wasn’t sure if Lennon would count as a Homegrown if RSL were to acquire him permanently after the expiration of the loan deal. He did say that because RSL offered Lennon a contract before he moved to Liverpool in July 2015, the club will retain the Arizona native’s MLS rights even if he returns to England after the end of his loan.
That last part is significant. A league spokesperson confirmed that other MLS clubs who offer contracts to academy players only for them head overseas hold the right of first refusal on said players. That potentially affect a number of teams, including FC Dallas (who lost US youth international Weston McKennie to Schalke last summer) and the New York Red Bulls (who reportedly offered US Under-18 Matthew Olosunde a deal before he signed with Manchester United last winter), among others.
Beasley negotiations in Houston
The Houston Dynamo’s negotiations to bring back 34-year-old free agent US international DaMarcus Beasley were finalized on Friday after club GM Matt Jordan had confirmed to me earlier this week that the two sides were still negotiating.
Beasley and the Dynamo had both publicly stated in recent weeks that they wanted to work out a deal. Other GMs around the league had also told me that they’d have been shocked if Beasley ended up anywhere besides Houston.