“These guys up here, they know what you mean to the team.”
“They don’t know shit!”
Rapidly, it was dawning on Frank Isola that he was in the eye of what one might politely call a shit-storm.
The penny had actually dropped a few minutes earlier, when he tried to prep an audience of a few hundred people in a bland, low-ceiling room in the bowels of the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, seven miles east of New York City.
These are the rules, Isola said politely, and this is how the forum will work. Free drinks are over there.
“We don’t want your fucking beverages,” someone yelled.
Isola was then a sports journalist with New York’s Daily News paper and, on this particular evening in the early weeks of 2015, innocent collateral damage.
New York Red Bulls had called what’s known in the United States as a Town Hall — a Q&A with supporters, in the spirit of old-fashioned town-hall gatherings — and Isola was there to manage the microphone. He told himself it would be an easy night’s work, a favour for a friend who worked for the MLS team. How unruly could football supporters be?
“We walk out and right away the fucking crowd is going crazy,” Isola says. “They were all going at Ali (Curtis). One guy is shouting, ‘Get the fuck out of here! Ali, fuck you!’ I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’. They’d told me this was going to go on for 90 minutes. I’m on the podium and I’m sweating. We’re 10 minutes in.”
Curtis was the Red Bulls’ sporting director, the first member of a four-man panel sitting to Isola’s left.
Next to him in surviving video footage is general manager Marc de Grandpre and, further along on another high barstool, Jesse Marsch, their new head coach. First-choice goalkeeper Luis Robles has come along for the ride as moral support to whoever needs it.
Isola’s opening gambit is to assure the gathering that the panel values them. The remark is thrown back at him with relish.
“I’ve been here 10 days…” Marsch says, and even a room as angry as this one cannot stop itself reacting to that with sympathetic laughter.
Nowhere in the brief did it say that he would be met with pitchforks and people baying for blood.
Coaches in all sports fight for hearts and minds and if Marsch has not written the book on that subject, he has bought the T-shirt more than once.
His welcome when he became manager of Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg in the summer of 2019 was a banner reading ‘Nein zu Marsch’ (No To Marsch). At RB Leipzig in Germany two years later, he had the task of following Julian Nagelsmann and now at Leeds United, the near-impossible job of matching up to beloved predecessor Marcelo Bielsa.
But none of those hurdles were as intimidating as that night in New Jersey when a resentful Q&A made people who were there think it was on the verge of spilling over into violence.
“I don’t know whose brilliant idea it was,” Curtis laughs, recalling the decision to throw himself to the wolves. “If it was outside, they would have had torches!”
The point of the forum was to explain why the Red Bulls’ hierarchy had sacked Mike Petke, hitherto the most successful head coach in the club’s then two-decade history. Curtis and De Grandpre wanted to explain why he was gone and why Marsch would be taking the reins. It was a change of direction, a change of ethos… and the news was incendiary.
But Marsch held his nerve and stood his ground and, by the end of the night, his knack of tackling scepticism head-on — a trait he carried into Leeds as Bielsa’s replacement back in February — had won him friends.
“The way he handled himself, it was really impressive,” Isola says. “I thought, ‘I could definitely play for this guy’.”
Petke was a former MLS player with a solid reputation and an appetite for coaching.
The Red Bulls, who had been his final club as a player, gave him his first senior post three years after he hung up his boots in 2010. He was as popular a coach as they’d had since starting life as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the mid-1990s.
In 2013, Petke delivered the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy awarded to the team with the best record at the end of Major League Soccer’s regular season, taking 59 points from the 34 games. A year later, they again made the play-offs that decide MLS champions. Then, less than two months after losing in the semi-finals, to much surprise, he was sacked.
Curtis says his first instinct in that winter of 2014-15 was not to replace Petke.
As stated, Petke was well regarded and, as the first African-American general manager in the history of MLS, Curtis did not want to be seen to be getting a big decision wrong.
But he and the Red Bulls wanted a new philosophy, a more intense style of play with greater commitment to the young players they were producing. And they were unconvinced about Petke’s ability to deliver that.
“My plan wasn’t to fire Mike,” Curtis tells The Athletic, “but I’d met with him and I’d spoken to several people around the club. In terms of where I wanted the team to go, I felt going with a different coach would be the best decision. It was probably the most difficult decision because, in most of those situations, the easy thing to do is to allow things to continue — especially a legend.”
Curtis had never met Marsch on a personal level but industry contacts had suggested he would be a good appointment.
The then 41-year-old, though, had a limited track record: one year in charge of MLS expansion side Montreal Impact in 2012 (W12 D6 L16, finishing seventh in the 10-team Eastern Conference), some coaching at the college level and time spent on the US national team staff.
At the town-hall meeting, one fan would deride him as an “undecorated, sub-.500 head coach”, a reference to the fact that Marsch’s win ratio with Montreal was less than 50 per cent. “I’m just looking at the numbers,” the doubter added. “It’s nothing personal.”
Curtis was the first member of the panel to speak, describing Marsch as someone who embodied “everything you want in a coach”. That comment elicited a loud retort of, “No he doesn’t!” and more dissent coming from all angles.
Of course, Curtis, more than Marsch, was the man in the line of fire that night. Sacking Petke was on him. The first question to him sought an explanation for why Petke was gone.
Curtis’ attempts to wax lyrical about a shift in club mindset were ruthlessly shut down.
Petke was a good coach, he said, an effort to be conciliatory. “The best ever,” a fan replied, adding: “Don’t even say his fucking name!”
Curtis saw Marsch as a progressive thinker, someone with “hunger, and a chip on his shoulder” after his one-season reign in Montreal. “He was clear with his ideas,” Curtis says. “I had good recommendations and I knew the way he wanted to play.”
To him, the choice of new coach was astute, but it was met with bitter dismay by the club’s support. The anger was so obvious that it had to be addressed.
“The thing you don’t want to do is remain silent,” Curtis says. “I don’t know specifically whose idea it was to have a town-hall meeting, but it’s important that there’s communication, in good times and bad. Let’s talk with them and share with them.”
Isola’s day job was reporting on the New York Knicks NBA basketball team and, on that particular Friday, he had nothing in the diary. He planned to fly out to cover a college game the next day.
All he knew about Marsch was that he had once seen him kick David Beckham in the stomach and go nose-to-nose with him years earlier, during an MLS match between LA Galaxy and now-defunct Los Angeles rivals Chivas USA.
His first inkling of what he had let himself in for came when he arrived at the Red Bulls’ stadium.
“I got there and people are drinking in the parking lot,” he says. “‘Really? People are drinking at this thing?’. There are security guards and I can’t understand why there are so many of them. In the back (before going on stage), it’s me, Ali, Marc, Luis and Jesse, all of us bullshitting.
“I told Jesse about being at the (Beckham) game and he was laughing. I could tell he was cool. He carries himself well. He has a lot of confidence.”
Throughout the opening salvos, Marsch sat on his stool motionless, almost impervious to the near-riot developing in front of him. It was 17 minutes before anyone asked him a question or until he spoke at all.
Some in the crowd threatened to give up their season tickets. Some told Red Bull — the energy-drink giant bought and renamed the club in 2006 — to sell up, pointing out angrily that “we’re not a drink”.
Isola tried, rather hopefully, to call a halt to the “cursing” by pointing out that there were women and children in the audience. “Everyone was completely out of line,” he says.
Among the early questions was one about Marsch’s future. If he doesn’t win the MLS Cup (the league title) in his first season, will he be fired? Curtis appreciated the fury then and he understands it now. “You need to expect that when people are angry, they can say difficult things,” he says.
Only Robles was truly immune from the heat because the US international, who played in Germany for five years before moving to the Red Bulls in 2012, was well liked by the fanbase. One supporter criticised the panel for having brought the team’s goalkeeper along, almost like a human shield, but Robles insisted otherwise. “I volunteered to be here, to represent the players,” he said. “No one forced me to come here.”
Robles’ message to the forum was that the squad were “excited about where we’re going”, but speaking now, a few years on from his retirement, he remembers doubt among the players about what had happened.
“There was volatility in the air,” Robles tells The Athletic. “Anyone who followed the club could see that. You had the mood on the outside and for us on the inside, Jesse was moving to a new playing style. It was a lot of change — and you know how people sometimes react to change.
“He was taking on a pretty veteran group of guys. It wasn’t as if, straight out the gate, we were all saying, ‘This is amazing, this is perfect, let’s all buy into it’. I wouldn’t call it trepidation as such, but there was quite a guarded approach from some of the guys in the locker room. There were people he had to win over — and not just the fans.”
Robles says the personable approach of Marsch and his assistant, Chris Armas, helped to win the squad over.
Marsch spoke to Armas about becoming his No 2 at Leeds this season but his old colleague, who assisted Ralf Rangnick at Manchester United last season, is understood to have turned the role down for personal reasons. Rene Maric, the former Borussia Dortmund assistant, was appointed to the same job at Elland Road last week.
Isola remembers one supporter standing up and telling Robles that his wife “was hot”. Isola implored him to ask a reasonable question, to which the fan said: “Don’t tell me to shut up, suit.”
Curtis bore the brunt of the aggression and still resents some of it: “The guy that said, ‘Don’t say his name! Don’t say his name! Why did you fire Mike Petke?’, he was always very angry with me. He said some things about my son, who at the time was four years old. That I’ll never forgive.
“There were some people that did come up to me (in subsequent seasons) as success started to turn and said, ‘Hey, maybe we didn’t give you a fair shot’, but that’s something I didn’t even focus on. I just wanted the club to do well. And win. The fans are emotional, they’re vocal, and that’s fine. This game, this sport — it’s for the thick-skinned.”
When it came to Marsch’s turn to speak, after almost 20 minutes of arguing, he sprang into life.
Until then, he had taken everything in impassively — hands clasped in his lap, face giving nothing away.
“Believe it or not, I love this passion,” he said. “A lot of clubs in this league would have none of this. I’ve got a huge challenge in front of me…”
Someone interjected: “You’ve gone one year.” Marsch refused to argue.
“You know what? I’ll take that,” he said. “All that matters is results. If we lose, you’re going to hate me. If we win, maybe you’ll learn to put up with me.” The reaction to that was more receptive. Fair enough.
That ‘Nein Zu Marsch’ banner flown inside Red Bull Salzburg’s stadium before Marsch’s arrival as head coach was part of a bigger picture. Marsch was coming from sister club RB Leipzig, where he had been Rangnick’s assistant.
Alex Januschewsky is the founder of Raging Bulls, a Salzburg supporters club. He told The Athletic the banner was the work of an individual fans group, without saying who was responsible for it. The message stemmed from frustration about players routinely leaving Salzburg for Leipzig, the biggest club in the Red Bull stable.
“Jesse came from our ‘sister’ club and no one from our fans likes them,” Januschewsky says. “It was a difficult start for him, but after several weeks almost everyone liked him because of his professional and friendly behaviour.”
Curtis felt the same about that 2015 Town Hall in New Jersey — that Marsch himself was not really the issue. “The vitriol and anger wasn’t necessarily directed at Jesse,” he says. “I don’t think the fans were angry at Jesse. They were angry at me. Someone — myself — offered him a job and he accepted. They were angry with the situation.
“But in that moment, we were incredibly focused. A town-hall meeting, an upset player or whatever it is that happens in an organisation was not going to be a distraction from the success of the club. I remember right after that meeting, I spoke to three heads of supporters’ groups. Then I went to my office and started working on Tyler Adams, the contract proposal.”
Afterwards, Marsch stuck around, thick-skinned enough to ride the dissent and speak to supporters one-on-one.
“When it was over, he stood there forever answering the questions that were asked,” Isola says. “The tough guys who were cursing, once they had a chance to talk face-to-face, they didn’t do it (speak to Marsch). But a lot of people did. He scored a lot of points by doing that.”
By then, Marsch knew what he was getting into and how fiercely he would be judged; good practice for future jobs in Salzburg, Leipzig and Leeds.
There was at least one voice of support for him in the audience that evening.
“I’m with you, I hope you win,” the fan said. “Welcome to New York — this is how we do it here.”
In Marsch’s first season as head coach, the Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield again with 60 points from the 34 matches, then got to the semi-finals of the title play-offs. If annoyance over the treatment of Petke still lingered, it was now much harder to argue with his choice of replacement.
To an extent, Marsch is in a similar position today at Leeds: successor to an exceptionally popular manager and, with their 2022-23 Premier League about to kick off today (Saturday), hunting for momentum which wins over the crowd. He has never had easy starts as a head coach and, as time goes on, his willingness to back himself in difficult circumstances is striking, almost as if difficult circumstances actively motivate him.
Curtis can look back on the infamous Town Hall in a positive light now. “It was really a great story in terms of being able to transform the organisation and launch it into a different phase,” he says.
“We ended up winning the Supporters’ Shield that year, and when we won it (with a 2-1 away win over Chicago Fire in the final regular-season game), we celebrated with the same supporters who’d had deep emotions (nine months earlier). When you get criticism or tension, those are good things. It means people care. It means there are opportunities. Jesse feels that and senses that.”
Isola continues to work in sports journalism for ESPN among other outlets.
Curtis has since become a senior vice-president at Major League Soccer.
At New York Red Bulls, that inaugural Town Hall meeting led to annual events just like it, most of them far more good-humoured.
A year after Marsch’s fraught introduction, Isola watched with amusement as a second gathering played out on the back of that Supporters’ Shield triumph in Chicago — this time the atmosphere was upbeat and positive.
“For that one, they invited Tina Cervasio, who at the time was their sideline reporter,” he says. “She got to host it and it was this great celebration of the club and Jesse. I’m the asshole who got killed.”
(Top photo: Graham Conaty/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)