(Commentary) – Yesterday, former New York Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan made some fairly incendiary comments while speaking to SiriusXM FC yesterday. All of the Red Bulls Twitter-sphere was alight with the quote. Kljestan insinuated that his former club lacked ambition. “I feel like we lacked that at the Red Bulls, going out and getting guys that will be difference makers, and add to the pieces we already have,” Kljestan said.
This statement is especially interesting coming from the Orlando City SC midfielder. Sure he was the MLS assist leader for all three seasons he played for New York. Head Coach Jesse Marsch entrusted him with handling the flow for the high-intensity attack that the club deployed. The entire offense flowed through him and he reaped the benefits.
Except Kljestan would typically disappear in big games.
For example, one of his personal worst matches for his former club was last year’s US Open Cup Final. Another example was his final match in a Red Bulls uniform where he was involved with an equally childish Jozy Altidore. Both players were sent off for taking an on the field altercation into the locker room tunnel. Additionally, despite being named club captain at the beginning of last season, Kljestan was never lived up to that mantle. Let’s again revisit last fall’s playoff series with Toronto FC. Kljestan berated his teammates, essentially stating certain players will have to ‘figure things out’ on their own.
Does that sound like a leader to you?
But this piece is not meant to be a character assassination of a former Red Bull.
While Orlando City SC has scaled back player development operations, the Red Bulls have doubled down with theirs. OCSC recently decided that their USL club would forgo the 2018 season. They’ve also scaled back academy operations. In contrast, the Red Bulls are hyper-focused on developing high-quality professional soccer players. This came as a change in direction just after Kljestan was presented in a digital photo in a Red Bulls uniform on social media. He was put in a leadership position to help guide his younger teammates in order to support RBNYs development process. At the time of his signing, he was the only roster player that had experience playing in the highest level tournaments in the footballing world. He was in a prime position to become an integral part of the development of blossoming superstars like Tyler Adams.
Instead, it turns out that Kljestan had no interest in assisting in player development. From that perspective, maybe it’s not a bad thing that he was traded. In fact, it may have been the only logical option.
While clubs like LA Galaxy and Toronto FC have taken the tactic of buying players to win MLS Cups and other trophies, the Red Bulls have moved away from that. The club philosophy is to build something lasting. While looking frugal when the league salaries get released, RBNY has been slowly transitioning away from the buy-to-win mentality. The tactic never really lived up to the expectations. Sure, it was fun to see Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel ply their trade at a genius level in front of fans locally. Tim Cahill was sure entertaining to watch. However, that era garnered one single trophy and none in a tournament competition. Now, the Red Bulls technical staff is looking to build something bigger. Instead of buying stars, they’re doing something a great deal more ambitious. They’re trying to create them.
The best example of this is the aforementioned Tyler Adams. While it is a Greek tragedy that the US Men, and by extension Adams, did not qualify for this year’s World Cup in Russia, the young midfielder will get the opportunity to continue his development as both a player and a leader. In contrast to many players his age, Adams already has a resume that includes two trophies and a dearth of professional minutes. He came back from USMNT January Camp with a drive and determination not just to play well, but support his teammates. This speaks volumes for the type of player he’s developing into. And like young Matt Miazga, Adams likely won’t be in a New York kit for much longer – he’s likely to go on his own European adventure within a season or two.
Instead of embracing the “win now” mentality that many clubs have, the Red Bulls are more interested in the big picture and developing the game here in a league who’s academy system is patchy at best. Dynasties are traditionally not built that way unless you’re in Europe and have PSG or Barcelona money. That model is not traditionally sustainable. Based on his statement, the idea of vision escapes Kljestan. The soccer deities are not without a sense of irony when that lack of vision comes from a playmaker in the midfield.