The famous “Twist and Shout” has become a staple among New York Red Bulls fans in recent times, as the South Ward has often sung and danced in glee after a Bradley Wright-Phillips game-winner, a moment of magic from Mike Grella, or in the streets of Chicago after raising their second Supporters’ Shield in three years.
Yet just a few months ago, “Twist and Shout” had an entirely different meaning for this notoriously embattled fan base.
As any of the 300 fans in attendance could tell you, there was not a single jovial tune to be sung back at the town hall meeting held by team officials in January. New York’s most ardent supporters were in no mood to sing and dance, but there was plenty of shouting to go with their wild gesticulations. And perhaps it was justified, as the Red Bulls appeared to be once again hitting the reset button.
“Why did you fire Petke?”
It was a fair question by any standards, even more justifiable when considering just who had been fired. Sacking a coach who brought the franchise its first piece of silverware in his first year, then fell a goal short of MLS Cup the next, would seem questionable at best. Throw in the fact that Petke is a Metrostars/Red Bulls legend, adored by the masses since his playing days, and the decision would seem downright bizarre.
This question came to define the evening for newly appointed sporting director Ali Curtis, who found out just how quickly the fans’ passion could turn to ire.
“There was a lot of resentment from most of our members for the decision that was made,” Empire Supporters Club board member Eric Rios told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s no secret that Mike Petke is one our idols. He was a great guy when he played, still a great guy now. He always had love for the supporters.”
Fans bombarded Curtis with biting inquiries throughout the night in what was his first public appearance for the club. Only recently hired, Curtis made himself public enemy No. 1 after his decision to relieve Petke of his duties, claiming to have the blueprint to success in his now-infamous 300-page plan.
“The fans have every right to voice opinions,” captain Dax McCarty said. “That’s the beauty of sport; if you’re a fan, you pay your hard-earned money to go to games and support the team, you have every right to have a voice whether it’s good or bad. Mike Petke was a legend at this club and maybe they felt some loyalty towards him, which is great, that’s what all fans do.”
For a franchise that had seen more turnover than other in MLS history, head coach Jesse Marsch’s introduction seemed to signal just the latest ill-fated attempt at long-term stability.
As the architect of this new era of Red Bulls soccer, Curtis promised a new style for a team previously defined by the stars of yesteryear. Needless to say, fans were suspicious of these new proclamations of change. After all, this was a franchise long defined by its larger-than-life stars on the pitch. From Donadoni to Matthaus to Angel to Henry, there was always an attraction to grab the common fan’s attention dating all the way back to 1996.
Instead, Harrison lay bereft of “top talent,” as the key pieces that helped the Red Bulls lift the franchise’s first-ever trophy in 2013 left the club: no more Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill or Jamison Olave. Add in a coach who had a less-than-stellar record in his one and only season as an MLS head coach with the expansion Montreal Impact, and the relatively low expectations surrounding the club would seem to be justified.
“My first thought was, ‘Thank God MLS went to six playoff spots,’” 20-year season ticket holder and “Seeing Red” host Mark Fishkin said. “I viewed the sixth place now being the goal for the year.”
Indeed, the answer the prevailing question as to why Petke was shown the door was never truly answered. Instead, fans were met with promises of a new analytical approach to the game, a team-first mentality, and an attractive brand of soccer. But for long-suffering fans of the club, they’d heard grandiose promises countless times before.
“You can’t discount the amount of skepticism at that point,” Fishkin added. “People were clearly disillusioned with that they were seeing. The fury wasn’t universal, but there was certainly disenchantment.
“He did not acquit himself very well that evening with his wordy and opaque answers.”
For the Red Bulls, things seemingly needed to get worse before they could improve, or at least that’s how it played out.
Fresh on the new job, Marsch made headlines early in his tenure by addressing what has come to define the 2015 New York Red Bulls: their seemingly trademarked up-tempo, high-pressing tactics.
“I want our team to be very organized but explosive and aggressive, on the move, with and without the ball,” he said.
“This is an energy drink.”
Perhaps unaware of the tenuous relationship between the fan base and their corporate owners, Marsch’s statement flared up arguments on message boards throughout the Red Bulls community questioning his vision for the club.
Shortly after, Curtis made the move to part ways with midfielder Eric Alexander and promising youngster Ambroise Oyongo in exchange for midfielder Felipe and the top spot in the allocation order. Again, consternation amongst the masses began to crop up.
Before a single game was played, the season’s outlook looked bleak. But it was Marsch’s words during the Town Hall that gave some fans pause, and perhaps the benefit of the dobut.
“You don’t have to like me, and you may never like me,” Marsch stated at the meeting. “That is the role of the coach, but that isn’t important to me. What’s important to me is the team… If we lose, you will hate me. If we win, maybe you will put up with me. But give this team a chance to take the field and compete.”
And when given the chance, the tides began to slowly turn.
The Red Bulls were a side transformed under Marsch, and it didn’t take too long to show it.
Whereas it took Petke’s side seven matches to bag their first win of the season in 2014, Marsch and his men flew out of the gates to go undefeated over their first seven.
“We thought we probably wouldn’t make the playoffs, maybe close to the bottom of the table or at the bottom of the table,” Viking Army board member Michael Warchol said of the season’s outlook. “But that quick start really helped the morale of our fan group.”
Suddenly, there was renewed sense of optimism in Harrison. Perhaps the showmanship from year’s past had been missing, but the heart of the club remained intact. And it was that heart that won many fans back.
“They very deftly started the tradition where the entire team comes down in front of the South Ward,” Fishkin said of the salute that has taken place at Red Bull Arena following a win. “That played a big factor.”
It was an entirely conscious move by a team that was cognizant of the turmoil within their fan base, and it was the man who stood alongside the front office at the first Town Hall meeting who spearheaded this new initiative.
“We talked about it during the preseason, about wanting to engage the crowd more,” goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “We understand that there’s some repairing that needs to occur and we’ll do the best that we can.”
Some amount of doubt remained with the club for the entirety of the season, but at almost every juncture, the Red Bulls continued to turn doubters into believers.
After their worst run of form during May and June, New York bucked the trend of their previously predictable summer swoon. Instead of crumpling under the heat, the Red Bulls won 14 of their final 20 matches amidst concerns as to whether Marsch’s physically demanding high press would hold up over the course of a 34-game season.
The payroll? It had dropped precipitously – a concern for many who had followed this team since day one. But Curtis’s knowledge of the league system proved to be an invaluable asset, getting more bang for his buck than any team in MLS.
Little-known commodities such as Grella and Kemar Lawrence joined the club on bargain salaries and went on to become staples in Marsch’s starting XI. His trade with crosstown newcomers New York City FC saw backup goalkeeper Ryan Meara (who made just one start in 2015) go out on loan. In return, midfielder Sal Zizzo joined the club on a permanent transfer, and is now a regular starter on the Shield-winning side.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Red Bulls manhandled their newest rivals from across the Hudson River. Sweeping the season series, the Red Bulls gave their fans something to cheer about as chants of “New York is red” rang out from Newark to the Bronx. An undefeated season series against old rivals D.C. United further satiated the Red Bulls faithful as a paradigm shift became ever more apparent.
“Even for the people that threatened to not come back and not support the team until Red Bull was gone, they can even admit to themselves that they’ve been pleasantly surprised with the season, McCarty said. “At least I would hope they would.”
Winning trophies has always been the main goal, but few could have predicted just how quickly success came to the new regime. As for the early backlash at Curtis? He says comes with the territory.
“I knew the job was going to be really hard and I knew I was going to have to make some difficult decisions that could be unpopular,” Curtis told MLSsoccer.com. “That was to be expected. I’m just really happy and grateful that we’ve been able to achieve a lot so quickly. But we still have a lot of work to do.”
That mentality, along with the results to back it, up had fans doing the unthinkable in September’s Town Hall follow-up. Once the target of expletive-laden vitriol, many of those same fans began apologizing to those at the podium given the nature of their highly successful campaign.
“Good things will come to those who are patient and to those that will stick with us through tough times, and they’ve been brilliant,” McCarty said of the New York faithful. “I was expecting a lot more empty stadiums at Red Bull Arena then we got. For them to have faith in Jesse and the players, I’d like to think we’re an easy team to support.”
The winter that rocked the Red Bulls may be in the rearview, but its effects are still being felt to this day. For some, no amount of goodwill built up by the current regime will ever make up for their past transgressions. It would seem some fans have walked away for good, but for those who have steadfastly stuck by a notoriously unstable New York Red Bulls organization, their recompense is that much greater.
In a year that had “rebuild” written all over it, the Red Bulls went further than even the most optimistic fans could have predicted. The club's leadership has given a jaded fan base both reason for jubilation and hope for the future, all in record time.
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. But had Romulus gotten his hands on Curtis' famed 300-page plan, perhaps he could have.