Stejskal: Former NY Red Bulls exec Ali Curtis eyeing MLS return

What happens when the dream job ends?

What do you do when the gig you spent your entire professional life striving toward is ripped away? When a decade of work evaporates in a stunning power struggle? When – for perhaps the first time in your whole career – you no longer have a plan?

If you’re former New York Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis, you buy a smoker. And you think. A lot.

Curtis’s two-year run with the Red Bulls came to an end in February when, after weeks of uncertainty surrounding his role with the team, he and the club agreed to part ways.

You already know the rough version of events surrounding his exit: There was his unexplained early departure from the MLS Combine and SuperDraft in January, head coach Jesse Marsch’s subsequent late arrival to California following a trip to Europe to meet with Red Bull execs, then four weeks of silence about Curtis’ status – punctuated by the blockbuster trade of Dax McCarty to Chicago – before the official announcement of his parting on February 16.

The saga played out in slow motion. Curtis successfully helped the club navigate the end of the Thierry Henry era and survived the incredibly unpopular decision (just two weeks into his tenure) to fire head coach and Red Bulls icon Mike Petke and replace him with Marsch, facing down supporters who were calling for his immediate dismissal at a town hall-style meeting.

Eventually, he won them over, working the MLS roster rules he helped design during a tenure at the league office to astutely assemble a team that won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield and finished the 2016 regular season with the best record in the East despite their relatively low payroll. Sporting directors with those kinds of results don’t generally get pushed out after two years, even at a club as historically volatile as New York.

Curtis didn’t talk about the specifics of the end of his time with the Red Bulls back in February, and isn’t particularly interested in doing so now. The 38-year-old has always been a planner, and he’d prefer to focus on the future. If he gets his way, that will include another shot at running an MLS team.

“I want to be in soccer,” Curtis told MLSsoccer.com by phone last week. “It’s something I’m passionate about, something I love, something I feel that I’m good at and so I want to be back in soccer.”

After he officially left the Red Bulls, Curtis made a conscious effort to unplug. Since being picked with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2001 SuperDraft, he’d worked in MLS as a player, league office employee or Red Bulls exec for 13 out of 16 years. Life in the league was essentially all he knew as an adult. He needed a breather, and made a focused effort to get away.

So out went the scouting trips, and in came the smoker. A new road bicycle followed. In between the brisket, bike rides and becoming something of a handyman around his century-old house in the New York suburbs, there was plenty of family time with his wife and two young kids, travel and reconnecting with old friends.

He treated his first five or six months away from the game as a sabbatical. The goal wasn’t so much to generate new ideas as gain new perspective. He went to Alaska with his wife, returned to Ann Arbor, Michigan for his 20-year high school reunion, spent a weekend at his alma mater (Duke) and took trips to Chicago, Florida and Vermont. He got what he could out of all that unplanned free time, a luxury not afforded to working MLS general managers.

“It’s been wonderful, it really has been,” he said. “It’s been a really good break away from the constant motion of the game. I’ve been able to take time to be with my family and to be with my friends that I haven’t really caught up with in a long time, like a decade because things have been moving so quickly.

“I’ve been able to process all those events around me and my environment in a much different way than when I was either working at the league office or, particularly, at my last club. For me, when I was there, I felt that the world revolved around my club and I kind of was consumed with just trying to find ways to win and succeed. And so it’s taking a step back and really kind of being able to breathe in a different way. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it.”

As much time as there was to refresh, there was also plenty of time to reflect. Curtis thought about what went wrong and what he got right with the Red Bulls; agonized over a bad decision here, a wrong choice there; spent a few long nights thinking about opportunities missed and about what might’ve been.

He also thought about “The Plan”. Curtis famously arrived at RBNY talking about a 300-page binder he’d put together outlining his vision for how to best run an MLS club.

The Plan helped get him the job. It dictated that Curtis be bold from the jump, onboarding with the coaching change and guiding execution of the Red Bull global group’s long-term vision: Trim the first-team payroll, spend on a pipeline from the academy to MLS and tailor the roster to create on-field identity that would extend from the senior squad all the way down to the U-12s.

For the most part, The Plan worked. Marsch was an instant success in New York, and Curtis proved adept at beating other clubs to impact players. He nabbed Sacha Kljestan out from the under the LA Galaxy and landed Felipe from the Montreal Impact for pennies on the dollar. Promising academy products like Tyler Adams, Alex Muyl and Sean Davis developed in USL with New York Red Bulls II before graduating to the first-team.

All made a sizable impact in MLS, with Kljestan and Felipe teaming with McCarty, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles to lead New York to all that regular-season success before Adams emerged as a young star this year in the wake of McCarty's departure to the Chicago Fire.

Curtis, understandably, feels validated by those results. It’s clear he wouldn’t fundamentally change his approach in another MLS job.

“I’ve gone through the process of ‘What could I have done differently? This is what I did in this situation, this is what I did in that situation; this is how I interacted with so and so; this group, this is how I led.’ And I’ve gone through that process a number of different times, but I think my main takeaway is I came through my last experience with a tremendous amount of confidence,” Curtis said.

“I think when you succeed at something, it gives you confidence, it gives you energy in a way in which in the next time you know that not only will you be better prepared, but you’ll have all the confidence in the world and you’ll have all the experience in the world to really succeed.”

After getting away from the game for a few months and considering “a host of different career paths” outside of soccer, Curtis really dove back into watching MLS in early summer and is now consciously trying to work his way back into the sport.

Our interview is a part of that process, of course, as are the numerous phone calls he’s had with different individuals and teams around the game over the past couple of months. He declined to name anyone he’s spoken to, but said he’s had “really great conversations at all levels in MLS, outside MLS” with people he’d built relationships with during his time at the league office and with the Red Bulls.

While there aren’t any GM or sporting director jobs currently available, there are a few new clubs set to join MLS. With experience in the league office and track record of success in New York, Curtis would be a natural candidate for any future expansion teams.

He was firm, however, that if he were to ever get another opportunity to run a technical staff, it’d have to be a good fit for his family for him to accept. His wife is an executive with Creative Artists’ Agency in New York City and his two kids were born in the metro area. Life is comfortable there for the Curtises. A move to a new city would be no small endeavor.

“I enjoy working, so I want to get back to work. I like the pace of it, I like being around people and learning and setting goals and achieving them. At the same time, I think it’s so important [to be comfortable] with the people that you’re working with and all those details associated with that,” he said. “So, I’m going to be really measured about that. You just have to make sure that whatever opportunity that might be offered to you and you accept is the right fit, and I’ll be real cognizant of that moving forward.”

Curtis wants to be back in the mix, but he doesn’t yet have much sense of when. Until that time, he’ll keep working that smoker, keep riding his bike, keep taking advantage of some quality months with his wife and kids and keep planning for how to earn himself the MLS Cup trophy that eluded everyone during his time with New York.

“I feel like I have a lot of unfinished business,” he said. “I’m excited about what’s next; I’m not sure what that specifically will be, but I’m excited, and I always feel that I’ve got a lot to prove and that I’ve got unfinished business.”

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