"It looks like nothing," the Norwegian said of the picture. "It looks like something I wouldn't be a part of."
Mr. Soler isn't alone, since it seemed like before this season, no one wanted to be a part of New York's Major League Soccer team—not fans, not players, and not sponsors.
It was an underachieving franchise that frustrated many—including the MLS league office. "The league has had to operate for over a decade with a team in an extremely important market that under-delivered and was unable to capture the hearts and minds of the city," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
Mr. Garber has said that a successful team in New York has been among the league's greatest ''what-ifs?'' over the league's history. But now?
"This year, I think we have satisfied the 'what if' component," Mr. Garber said.
The franchise for the first time has become a force in the league and perhaps in its crowded New York marketplace, on and off the field. After finishing with the worst record in the league in 2009, the team is in second place in the East under first-year coach Hans Backe. They are 12 points ahead of third place, and look to have their best regular-season finish in at least nine seasons. They acquired two players who were in the lineup together for world power Barcelona as recently as six months ago in French star Thierry Henry and Mexican star Rafael Marquez.
It's off-the-field fortunes have improved as well. The team's new stadium in Harrison, N.J., which cost at least $220 million, is the headliner, as attendance has risen to 17,926 per game from 12,774 the year before, despite the fact that Mr. Henry and Mr. Marquez didn't join the team until after the World Cup in July. Are the Red Bulls moving from black sheep to model franchise?
"There is no comparison between now and when I got here," said striker Juan Pablo Angel, the team's biggest star before Mr. Henry's arrival. Mr. Angel, acquired in 2007, has 12 goals this season, second most in the league.
The past is not pretty. On the field, the team previously known as the Metrostars hasn't won any major trophies in a league that has featured as few as 10 teams. They've finished above third in their conference just twice in 14 seasons.
Off the field, it may have performed even worse, in large part due to the stadium issue. The team needed to sell 18,000 seats in Giants Stadium just to break even each game. They averaged that for just three of their seasons there. It was a team that despite its prime location, "guys weren't exactly dying to be on," according to MLS veteran Chris Albright, who is in his first season with the Red Bulls.
This season is the culmination of the ambitious plans from Red Bull, the energy drink company which bought the team in 2006. Around that time, Red Bull's co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz showed Mr. Garber a blueprint on how to have an authentic European-style team in MLS.
The franchise now pumps $500,000 a year into academies, with five youth teams in the New York/New Jersey area and academies in Brazil and Ghana which the team shares with other clubs owned by Red Bull. They are also building a training facility in New Jersey, though no timetable has been finalized, with a plan to commit $25 to $50 million depending on the location.
It's also paying players well. Mr. Henry, for instance, will make $5.6 million this season, and the Red Bulls are the only MLS team with three players making over $1 million. As ''designated players'', the deals are outside of the league's $2.5 million cap. Mr. Henry said he's loved his experience in New York, and has been impressed with the franchise and the facilities. He's scored two goals and has two assists.
Mr. Henry, known as one of the most creative players in the world, is the backbone of the team's possession-based offense which relies on smart passing and less on physicality. The team's identity, drilled in by Mr. Backe from the first day of training camp, is an outlier in the MLS, The team has gone 4-2-2 since Mr. Henry's arrival, and started the season with five wins in their first six matches. Though the team started hot without them, Mr. Backe said that the two stars have changed the entire shape of the team. He said their presence has ushered in European-style competitive practices and said practices have picked up by about 20% with Mr. Henry and Mr. Marquez on the field.
"It's been very evident to anyone around here that they are willing to spend money to make this successful," said defender Mike Petke, the team's all-time games-played and minutes-played leader who is in his second stint with the franchise after starting his career in New York in 1998. He said the organization now is completely different from what it was years ago. Mr. Petke is retiring after this season at age 34. He said his one regret is that he won't be able to play for the organization going forward, when he says it will really take off.
The European-style team that Red Bull is aiming for, where many players are homegrown, is slowly taking shape. Mr. Soler said that American players will eventually be the foundation for the team, though for now with the academy in its infancy, he values European experience more, and is skeptical of how three-month NCAA seasons prepare a player for 10-month MLS seasons. He acknowledges it's far-off that a superstar American would spend his whole career in MLS, but thinks if another player came along like Jozy Altidore, the former Red Bull who left to play in Europe at age 19, he could get perhaps three good seasons out of him.
Red Bulls jersey sales are up 150% since the re-branding from Metrostars to Red Bulls, according to Adidas Director of Soccer Antonio Zea. Though the numbers aren't complete, Mr. Zea said that when Mr. Henry and Mr. Marquez arrived, the company scrambled to supply "tens of thousands" of jerseys, which were sold soon after. The Red Bulls are now second in the league in jersey sales, behind Seattle.
There's no timetable for when the team will begin turning a profit, though Red Bulls managing director Erik Stover said the team is fine with being in a "growth mode" in the first season in the stadium. Both concessions and merchandise have doubled in the new stadium, and they no longer have to give a cut to Giants Stadium.
In addition, Mr. Stover says the team wants to produce its own local broadcasts next season and sell the rights to major networks—most teams in Major League Soccer, including the Red Bulls, split production fees with broadcasters and let them control advertisement and sponsorship revenues. Mr. Stover says making the switch could boost the team's ratings and potentially produce immediate profits.
The Red Bulls are in the final year of a three-season broadcasting contract with Madison Square Garden, according to people familiar with the deal. The Red Bulls pay about $250,000 in production costs while MSG pays $750,000, those same people say. But MSG keeps the sponsorship and ad money. Mr. Stover says if the team produced games on its own, it could sell them to major networks for about $50,000 apiece and make money on the ad and sponsorship revenues.
Mr. Stover says MSG produces the team's broadcasts well, but that the network hasn't "always done enough" because it's "cluttered" with other responsibilities. MSG Network's executive vice president and general manager Dan Ronayne says MSG values its relationship with the Red Bulls but that the company doesn't talk about the terms of its deals.
Even though the Red Bulls' number of viewers for local broadcasts this season is third-best in the league, according to the Nielsen Co., this move isn't guaranteed to work. MSG says the team averages a .11 rating on its network this season—the moribund Knicks, by comparison, averaged a .91 rating on the network last season.
"It's a risk," Mr. Stover says. "But we think the reward will be much greater."
i love this team sfm. they're fun to watch for the first time in a LONG, long time. And can we get a NY Red Bulls tag, plz?