Those of you in the corporate world are probably familiar with the term "hatchet man." It's not an official title of course - that person will hold a more innocuous title, like "Efficiency Consultant" or "Sporting Director." His or her job usually involves enforcing unpopular or ruthless policies that those higher up on the organization chart find distasteful, awkward, or time-consuming.
An amusing fictional example is the pilot episode of the Dave Foley-led ensemble show "Newsradio," where Foley's character is hired as a news director, and his first task is to fire the old news director. Because of the highly talented actors and writers, it was very funny and enjoyable to watch.
An equally amusing real-life example happened earlier this week, when Ali Curtis, who as of this writing has been in his current post two weeks and two days, informed Red Bulls coach Mike Petke that it was time to part ways. Because of the lack of skill and talent in the Red Bull organization, it was very funny but painful to watch.
If you are reading this, you are probably aware that Petke was and remains extremely popular with the Red Bulls faithful, as well as those who used to be Red Bulls faithful but now are having second thoughts. Petke was of course the first coach of the Red Bulls to win a trophy that had previously eluded the club - the prestigious "Anything At All."
It's pretty rare to see a fan outcry after a coach is fired. The only example I can come up is Penn State finally booting Joe Paterno...and any other similarities to that situation simply do not exist. At least, I hope to God they don't. Maybe Jim Harbaugh qualified as a fan favorite let go despite success, except from what I read Harbaugh was as excited to leave the 49ers as they were to be rid of him.
A couple of decades ago Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys, and fired that team's equivalent of God. Although Tom Landry by that point was past his prime and had several bad years in a row. (Also kind of like God, if you ask me, but perhaps that takes the discussion too far afield.) But Landry was replaced by Jimmy Johnson, a highly successful and well-known coach. Johnson's Cowboys went 1-15, and was immediately fired. No, actually, Jones stuck with Johnson, and the Cowboys won a bunch of titles. But Jones took responsibility, and later credit, for Landry's firing and Johnson's success - he didn't delegate the job to a lower-level yes-man.
Since Ali Curtis did not buy the Red Bulls, and since Red Bull GmbH management has not recoiled in horror at Curtis' decision, we can make some fairly safe conclusions on whether or not Curtis was acting with full approval of his numerous, faceless superiors. It's common for a new general manager or sporting director to want to bring in his own team, but (a) Curtis by no means has the experience or reputation to justify leading a housecleaning on his own terms, (b) Petke had by no means lost the fan base, and (c) Jesse Marsch also does not have the resume to justify overhauling an existing team to acquire his services.
It's worth mentioning that Curtis himself does not agree with any of this. According to Leander Schaerlaeckens:
“This wasn’t about getting rid of Mike Petke, it was about bringing in Jesse Marsch,” he [Curtis] said on a conference call. “Jesse embodies where we are moving forward. I’ve got a vision; I’ve got a philosophy and a plan. While we appreciate Mike’s service to the club, this was a decision I felt needed to be made.”
The other shoe hangs over us like the polar vortex. My theory is that Ali Curtis, as Mamadou Diallo's teammate in 2001, took Petke's "Crime of the Century" T-shirt to heart, and has fulfilled a vow of retribution on behalf of Diallo's honor thirteen years in the making. This theory has yet to attract any adherents.
A locker room revolt is possible - except if this was Tim Cahill's doing, he did not win over the fan base first, usually a pre-requisite for this sort of thing. If Cahill comes forward with loud expressions of support for Curtis and Marsch, then we might have our culprit - but that wouldn't make the decision any less ill-advised.
Jeff Carlisle quoted an anonymous source saying that Curtis also asked Caleb Porter, Gregg Berhalter, and even former Red Bulls head coach Bruce Arena to take the job. We'll probably never know how serious the offer was, or how close Arena was to returning to New York, but Arena is probably the only American (with the possible exceptions of Bob Bradley and Sigi Schmid) who would have mollified the fan base and justified the Petke firing. Curtis would be taking considerably less heat this week if he had succeeded in hiring Arena - in fact, so much less that it's doubtful he would have been allowed to take the credit.
It's also possible that Carlisle's source is making things up, but it's fun to speculate on the direction of the league would have taken had Arena left the Galaxy for the Red Bulls.
Michael Lewis has a different conclusion - that Red Bull is preparing to sell the team. I am in no position to contradict Lewis or his sources, except to meekly point out that Red Bull wouldn't offer the job to Arena if they were trying to sell the team. Of course, since Red Bull clearly did not make a big enough offer to attract Arena, there isn't necessarily any contradiction. Last year Grant Wahl speculated a sale price of $300 million, which would probably buy any team in MLS outside the Western Conference finalists (and don't hold me to that, either). Lewis now says $220 million, which is a difference nearly enough to buy another entire MLS team. Another few months, and the Cosmos will be able to buy the Red Bulls cheaper than Manchester City paid to join MLS.
Maybe LAFC can lend the Red Bulls a couple of owners. Or maybe David Beckham could have Miami play in New Jersey for a couple of years until his stadium is ready.
It's also possible that Curtis and Marsch do indeed have a plan and a vision, and will lead the Red Bulls to multiple titles in 2015 and beyond. Yeah, some days it's pretty easy to write a soccer comedy blog.