By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 5, 2019) US Soccer Players – On Tuesday, RB Leipzig of the Bundesliga announced that Ralf Rangnick was leaving his post as sporting director of the club to become the director of sporting and development for Red Bull’s global soccer network. In that role, Rangnick will oversee the soccer operations of the New York Red Bulls and Red Bull’s new Brazilian outpost, Bragantino. In his comments about his new job, Rangnick said something of interest for New York fans.
“We want to create a synergy effect between these clubs, from which RB Leipzig, in particular, can profit and develop even further,” Ragnick said. “That’s the aim.”
How much weight you put in that kind of talk likely depends on your feelings for the New York version of the Red Bulls. The MLS team is part of a single-entity league competing under unique rules. It’s also part of a bigger developmental system now centered on producing talent for the Leipzig version of the Red Bulls. Calling that a feeder system might be overdoing it now, but that’s Red Bulls’ perception to address.
From a North American pro sports perspective, that perception is of RB Leipzig as the majors and every other club under the corporate umbrella as the minors. We’ll leave aside the question of whether that makes the New York Red Bulls a double “A” outfit or something closer to triple “A”. Either way, if that’s at all accurate it doesn’t flatter MLS.
Rangnick is talking about player development, of course. The synergy he hopes to create is about pushing players through the academy and into the first team before sending them onto Leipzig.
There’s no need to imagine such a scenario for Red Bulls fans since that’s exactly the path that took Tyler Adams from local youth player to Leipzig’s first team at the age of 20. Rangnick mentioned Adams, saying, “Our job is going to be to develop a Tyler Adams and Bernardo and other players every year.”
Following Rangnick’s philosophy of play and investing in their academy helped the MLS club do once what Rangnick hopes they can do over and over again.
Adams is a proof-of-concept for RB Leipzig, a first example of from the United States. Whether Adams stays with Leipzig long term or moves on with a fee, it’s a success for Leipzig. The question for Red Bulls fans is whether this relationship limits their favorite club’s ability to be truly independent. If so, how does any lack of independence affects New York’s ability to compete for MLS Cups.
While fandom can take many forms, it’s undeniable that the basic hope of any fan is for their club to win championships. It’s club first, the issue when clubs look too much like a feeder for a bigger team somewhere else. It’s a tough situation when the club is in the greater New York City area.
The argument that Red Bull Global’s system is working fine for a club like Red Bull Salzburg, winners of the Austrian Bundesliga and Champions League qualifiers for 2019-20 has an issue. We’re talking about a club in the biggest metro market in North America trying to entice fans with plenty of options to care about the team in the absence of championships.
Can the “synergy” between RB Leipzig and the Red Bulls, one that sends players like Adams to Germany at the first sign that they’re ready to play at a higher level, produce both players to send to Leipzig and MLS Cup titles? It’s certainly possible. Looking at a lack of spending would apply to more MLS clubs than just the Red Bulls. Playing young players is not in and of itself a bad thing especially in traditionally young player-shy MLS. Still, any requirements handed down from on high mean the coach in New York is not entirely free to play the lineup he thinks gives the team the best opportunity to win. Again, that’s another question for the Red Bulls leadership.
The Red Bulls have a core of talented players and maximized return on several savvy acquisitions in recent years. What they haven’t done is spend the money necessary to find a backup/heir to Bradley Wright-Phillips at striker and are generally loathe to compete for the new breed of talent that is arriving in places like LAFC and Atlanta.
Pushing the “either/or” narrative that RBNY can invest in the academy or the first team roster but not both softens the blow when the club fails at the playoff hurdle, but sells a homegrown product to the parent club. Development, if done well, can work as a stand-in for winning. Turning out players of a high enough caliber to play and thrive in the Bundesliga is a natural point of pride. Only one team can win a championship in a given year, but player development is not a zero-sum game.
There’s always plenty to say about the joy that comes from watching players like Adams. If the Red Bulls never win a championship but give their fans a dynamic young phenom to cheer for each and every season, they’ll still be better off than the vast majority of teams in the league. That’s not exactly the best case scenario, but it’s far from the worst.
Red Bull Global’s empire is new. The relationship between the clubs still-evolving. City Football Group is doing something similar, though it’s unclear if the pathways available to players are the same.
More than CFG, Red Bull is challenging the paradigm of the “football club”. Stating directly that the goal is the have Leipzig “profit and develop” on the back of work done at other clubs in the system is not too far away from declaring the whole system a single entity that fans can support across borders. Rooting for Tyler Adams to succeed at Leipzig because he developed at your favorite MLS club can quickly morph into rooting for RB Leipzig.
No Red Bulls fan should have had the illusion that any of the clubs were fully independent operations. What’s left is a question for both fans and for MLS. The Red Bulls are part of Major League Soccer but have a developmental relationship that ties them to RB Leipzig. Is everyone okay with that?
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.
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Photo by Michael Lawrence – ISIPhotos.com