Goodbye Gerhard: What’s Next for the Red Bulls Under Troy Lesesne?
Sitting at No. 15 out of 15 teams in MLS’s Eastern Conference through 11 matches with nine points and one win, the New York Red Bulls dismissed manager Gerhard Struber from the club on Monday morning. In an announcement and subsequent press conference made by the club the same day, assistant coach Troy Lesesne was promoted to the head coaching mantle for the remainder of the 2023 season.
So, how did it get to this? And what changes could fans expect to see moving forward?
It had been clear ever since the incident involving Dante Vanzeir’s use of a racial slur on April 8 that the majority of Red Bulls fans were ready to move on from Struber for his choice not to remove Vanzeir from the match, leading to the supporters’ walkout the following week and the club’s refusal to announce his name before matches ever since. However, according to Red Bulls Head of Sport Jochen Schneider, the incident played no part in Struber’s dismissal, “otherwise we would’ve taken it immediately.”
According to the club, Struber’s departure was mutual, with both parties citing the difficulty for Struber living away from his family in Austria and the club’s poor record this season. In a message to the club and its supporters on Monday, Struber revealed that he had been planning to return back to Europe “at the end of this season at the latest,” confirming many fans’ suspicions that Struber had one foot out the door during his time in New York.
Ultimately, Struber’s final season with the New York Red Bulls will be remembered as one of scandal and a poor product, bringing the Metro its worst start to a season since the abysmal 2009 campaign–largely considered the worst in club history and the last season in which New York failed to make the playoffs. After 87 games across all competitions in charge of the Red Bulls, Gerhard Struber finished with 33 wins, 23 draws and 31 losses and a 37.93% win percentage from 2020-23. That is an even worse record than the previously-tenured and now-disgraced Red Bulls manager Chris Armas, who finished with 33 wins, 11 draws and 27 losses in 71 matches for a 46.48% win percentage from 2018-20.
It has become hard to fathom how the Red Bulls have underperformed this season, especially with such a seemingly strong offseason–bolstering the attack with the signings of Cory Burke and Vanzeir–but injuries, scandal and confused tactics have seen the Red Bulls plummet down the table early on. There remains hope, though, for the Metro faithful as following the club’s controversial 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, captain Sean Nealis echoed an important facet about playing in this league: “It’s still a little early in the season and a couple of wins puts you right back in the playoff race. That’s MLS and we’re gonna get better.”
Enter: Troy Lesesne
At 39 years old, New York’s new manager comes in as the third youngest coach in club history, but he brings with him an extensive 19 years of coaching experience from the NCAA Division 1 ranks at his alma mater the College of Charleston to three and a half years in charge of New Mexico United in the USL Championship as both the manager and technical director. His time in the second division was notably successful, bringing New Mexico to the Open Cup quarterfinal in 2019 and securing its first playoff win in club history the following year, leading to Lesesne being named co-coach of the year.
In 2021, the West Columbia, S.C. native was appointed by Struber to join the Red Bulls as an assistant, a reality for which Lesesne is grateful.
“Gerhard is the reason I’m here. He’s the one that hired me, he’s the one that saw something in me and I learned an incredible amount from him,” Lesesne said.
Unlike Struber, though, Lesesne made an important appeal to the fans in Monday’s press conference, sharing that “what I hope for moving forward is that we can be more connected, that we can take steps toward making [supporters] feel like they have a voice within our club and I think that’s what makes Red Bull so uniquely different from any other club in MLS.”
Such encouraging words have not been uttered by a New York manager in quite some time, but Lesesne also remains committed to drastically improving the team’s play while not losing the Red Bull identity that makes New York’s team so unique. Considering his team as a group of players that are better than their record and position in the league, Lesesne also provided insight on tactical phases that need to be amended.
“We feel really good about what we’re doing against the ball, in transition, set pieces. With the ball, we just have to provide a lot of clarity, we have to have a lot more controlling and managing and hopefully we see some more creativity in these moments,” Lesesne said.
While the Red Bulls’ struggles are clear with seven goals tallied in 11 matches, fans have already taken notice of the difference in demeanor and candidness between Lesesne and Struber, who was often criticized for scapegoating players and the front office for poor results. There is no guarantee that this coaching change will turn New York’s season around, but it has at least spearheaded the healing process between the club and its supporters that Struber claimed he wanted to solve, but ultimately abandoned.
Lesesne enters as the interim head coach and will immediately face the club’s two biggest rivals in his first week, with DC United taking the trip up I-95 to MSU Soccer Park for a Round of 32 Open Cup tilt Tuesday night before welcoming crosstown rivals NYCFC to Red Bull Arena on Saturday. As difficult as it may be to step into the fire like Lesesne will have to do, a couple of positive results against top rivals can be the fresh start the New York Red Bulls need to fuel a potential charge for the playoffs this season.