NEW YORK — To the casual Major League Soccer or New York Red Bulls fan, the starting lineup Chris Armas trotted out for New York’s first competitive match of the season probably didn’t raise an eyebrow.
Against an obscure Dominican opponent (Atlético Pantoja) in a non-league, international match (the Concacaf Champions League), the game drew barely over 3,400 people to Red Bull Arena. The result was largely as expected, a relatively easy 3-0 first-leg victory.
The lineup was, except for the transferred Tyler Adams, well known, the same one that finished the previous season and won the Supporters’ Shield. And that was significant, especially for the Red Bulls, who have used more players than any other in league history.
Following the Pantoja match, Armas called his returning lineup “so important” and said it “was essential” for him when he sat down with Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett at the end of last season. Armas said the two talked about the club’s needs, where they wanted to go, who to re-sign and whether Hamlett could keep the roster together.
“It’s never easy, salary cap and constraints like that,” Armas said. “You can see the chemistry is key, especially the way we play. Not everyone is a good fit. Identifying the right people, right players, and to have experience together in important games — for the head coach, it is necessary and makes my life easier.”
Some long-time league observers suggest the roster stability may be the hint of a trend.
Throughout its 23-year history, MLS clubs have been known – or at least criticized for – acquiring high-profile players from European clubs, many in the latter stages of their careers, and then adjusting rosters — in some cases ripping up — to compensate for the salary cap.
The moves were based partly on the notion the experience would bolster the teams’ play and partly on attracting an audience familiar with the acquisition’s pedigree.
“Most clubs, when they talk about style or culture, it’s a bunch of BS. Imported talent is much sexier than domestic talent.” — Alexi Lalas
The Red Bulls and their MetroStars predecessor have used 335 different players, according to Elias Sports Bureau, a company that tracks historical and statistical sports information. That’s significantly more than the second-highest 296 players used by the Colorado Rapids, also an original MLS franchise. Divided over 23 years, with a 28-man roster, the Red Bulls on average have changed more than half their team every year. Even the Rapids turned over 42 percent of their roster yearly.
“For some clubs, there are not a whole lot of changes, there is less impetus to change. Traditionally, it’s a rarity,” said Alexi Lalas, the former United States international and MLS original who also served as general manager of both the San Jose Earthquakes and MetroStars. “Maybe there is more confidence in the clubs [today]. Maybe they’re more picky.
“But it takes courage, too. The way it’s looked upon, you’re standing still, you’re not progressing. Tottenham Hotspur didn’t make moves this past offseason. That was huge. To some, it signified there was not a level of ambition. It’s an arms race mentality.”
For the Red Bulls, the shift has been gradual, but dramatic considering its past, beginning with Roberto Donadoni (1996-97) and including other name players such as Lothar Matthäus (2000), Youri Djorkaeff (2005-06), Juan Pablo Ángel (2007-10), Rafael Márquez (2010-12), Thierry Henry (2010-14) and Tim Cahill (2012-15), the last high-profile attraction to leave the club.
“I think teams always wanted to be consistent,” said Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez, who has held various positions with MLS through its history, including being president of former franchise Chivas USA its final year in 2014. “The league has gone through a few evolutionary stages. As a result, there’s change. It’s natural.
“I also think leagues and teams, in general, they settle in until someone innovates and has success, and then others rush to copy it.”
Besides the Red Bulls, who have adopted a strategy — a high-press, opportunistic style — across their teams in Austria (Red Bull Salzburg), Germany (Red Bull Leipzig) and New York, other teams credited with distinct club culture include Dallas, with its locally geographic approach, and Sporting KC, which one pundit likened to a “plain T-shirt company.”
“Most clubs, when they talk about style or culture, it’s a bunch of BS,” said Lalas, now an analyst for Fox Sports. “Imported talent is much sexier than domestic talent.”
But according to MLS, the average age of “designated players” – the high-profile players who can exceed the salary cap – has plummeted from 29.21 years in 2015 to 25.62 years at the start of this season. The average age of the foreign newcomer has likewise dropped from 27.02 years to 25.05.
It doesn’t mean MLS isn’t acquiring older, marquee players from Europe. Last season, 37-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimović left Manchester United to sign with the LA Galaxy on a free transfer. Moreover, 33-year-old Wayne Rooney joined D.C. United midseason after a career with Everton and Manchester United in the English Premier League.
“The allure of the bigger, sexy, big-money name signing is not going anywhere,” Lalas said.
“The LA Galaxy,” Rodriguez added, “their name and DNA suggest they always want a galaxy, a big star, maybe that will change. But my gut tells me they’ll always want high-profile players.
“I would still agree, in certain markets, that they require certain things. I do believe in New York, it requires some star power. I don’t mean this as a criticism. Red Bull has good team. It plays really well, had a lot of success, but have they broken through in the New York market?”
Lalas said teams are looking at the money they are pouring into their academies and figuring they should get some return.
Again, the Red Bulls have been one of the more notable clubs in that regard, bringing through their academy system players such as Adams, 20, who transferred to Red Bull Leipzig during the offseason, Sean Davis, 26, and Alex Muyl, 23.
“What player development is, should be, some say, is something MLS should be involved in, a core part of the business,” Lalas said. “Others say, ‘We want to hedge our bets. If we’re going to spend money, we should get what we want,’ a la carte it.”
MLS clubs have tried a variety of methods to win titles: the big-name signing, such as the LA Galaxy with David Beckham; the understated foreign acquisitions, such as Columbus with Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Atlanta’s Josef Martinez. Now, relying on their academies to produce a stable year-to-year lineup is possibly another tactic.
“A philosophy is only as good as the people that implement it,” Lalas said. “And that can change, completely change. It’s all relative to your market. How much your market will bear requires courage, patience and time. And that’s not something teams have in general.”