Denis Hamlett
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

New York Red Bulls’ sporting director Denis Hamlett has experienced quite a bit: a blustering collegiate career, an unfortunate MLS career-ending illness at 28, four trophies as Chicago Fire’s assistant coach and so on. Here’s a look at his career.

Onz Chery

The offseason is when the sporting director’s season starts. It’s their time to steer the building of a successful team. The most challenging offseason for sporting directors is obviously after a disappointing campaign.

New York Red Bulls went through a painful season. They finished the regular season in sixth place with a 14W-14L-6T record before losing to Philadelphia Union in the first round of the playoffs, 4-3.

New York’s sporting director, Denis Hamlett, is left with a lot to work on this offseason.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no off-season,” Hamlett said in a press conference. “[Head coach] Chris Armas and I are not happy with how the season went. We know we need to get better across the sporting department and that’s something that we’re going to work together as a group.

“We will take a hard look at everything.

“We just want to make sure now that we do our homework and bring in the right types of players that can help us.”

Hamlett has been in the realm of the professional soccer world for 27 years. As the 50-year-old is working on molding a better Red Bull team for next season, it’s fitting to take a look at his past experience. Or, in other words, his soccer journey until now.

Hamlett moved to the United States from Costa Rica at ten years old after his parents separated. He lived in Silver Spring, Maryland with his mother and attended Albert Einstein High school.

Young Hamlett played soccer and basketball for Albert Einstein. His performances earned him a spot in the school’s Hall of Fame.

After graduating from high school in 1987, the sporting director joined the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He led the team in scoring his freshman year as a fullback, racking seven goals in 15 games.

UNC Athletics tweeted a picture of some of their players from 1987 on Aug. 2, 2018. Hamlett is in the lower right corner.

His performance earned him All-Conference (Colonial Athletic Association) recognition and he was also the letter-winner for soccer that season.

Following his freshman year, the Latino youngster transferred to George Mason University in Virginia, a school that had just reached the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Hamlett finished his college career with GMU, winning All-Colonial Athletic Association and All-Region accolades with them. He helped Mason win the CAA conference in 1989 and made the school’s Hall of Fame.

Hamlett graduated from Mason with a degree in Public Administration in 1992. After graduating, he moved to Florida to start his professional career with Fort Lauderdale Strikers on June 10, 1992.

Hamlett only played in 19 matches with Fort Lauderdale. The team reached the semi-finals of the American Professional Soccer League in 1992.

The former defender then joined an indoor league, the National Professional Soccer League, spending two years with Harrisburg Heat and one with Anaheim Splash. He netted 50 goals in 124 appearances in the NPSL.

Later in 1996, Hamlett was selected by Colorado Rapids in the MLS Inaugural Player Draft as the 12th round pick. The Puerto Limon native played in 31 of the Rapids’ 32 games of their inaugural season. The team finished in fifth place in the Western Conference and Hamlett was named Colorado Rapids Defender of the Year.

Sadly, his MLS career ended after his first season. Hamlett suffered a stroke due to a blood protein deficiency in 1997 at 28 years of age.

After retirement, the Costa Rican found a home in Illinois with the Chicago Fire.

“He spoke to youth soccer groups, answered phones, sold tickets, attended community functions and scouted MLS and A-League games,” the Fire’s first president and general manager, Peter Wilt, said about Hamlett via Soccer America.

Wilt recommended Chicago’s head coach, Bob Bradley, to use Hamlett as an assistant coach. Bradley put the then 28-year-old on trial. Hamlett succeeded.

In his first season as Chicago’s assistant coach, the team won the MLS Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

“We thought then that we had a good team, and we came together. That was a long time ago. Obviously those are very special memories. That was a special group that came together and won two championships [MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup],” Hamlett told ESPN reporter Charlie Corr about his first silverware as an assistant coach.

The Fire won the Open Cup three more times during his spell as an assistant coach in 2000, 2003 and 2006.

In 2008, Hamlett stepped up the ladder and became Chicago’s head coach. The club had the most talented roster in the league. They finished third in the overall standings and lost to Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final.

The following season, according to SBI, Hamlett got into a “heated exchange that got out of control” with former defender Bakary Soumare at halftime in the locker room. Hamlett and Soumare were fined because of this incident.

The Fire’s season ended again in the Eastern Conference final. Since the club was yet again trophyless, even though they had a great roster, and because of the locker room incident, Chicago released Hamlett from the club in November 2009.

The Costa Rican dropped to the collegiate level the following year and became Illinois Institute of Technology’s assistant coach.

Hamlett returned to the MLS as Vancouver Whitecaps’s assistant coach in January 2011. Unfortunately, the club released him nine months later. The former Rapids defender joined another Canadian club in 2012 as an assistant coach again, Montreal Impact.

Hamlett stayed with the Impact during their first two seasons in the MLS, in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs.

The ex-GMU player was then inactive from the professional soccer world for two years. In 2015, Jesse Marsch was named as the Red Bulls’ head coach. Hamlett was under Marsch at Montreal as an assistant coach in 2012 and coached him in Chicago in 2018.

Marsch called on Hamlett to become his assistant coach in New York. Together, they won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield and topped the East the following season.

After two successful seasons, the Red Bulls hired Hamlett as their sporting director. His vast experience in the MLS and first two fruitful seasons with the coaching staff was, obviously, why he got the job.

“My experience in MLS from the beginning is crucial to my understanding of the league, the personnel, the talent, what it takes to win in this league,” the 50-year-old said. “I’ve won many championships when I was on staff in Chicago and, more importantly, the last two years I got a good understanding of Red Bull Global Soccer.”

Hamlett was self-assured when he started the role of sporting director.

“I feel confident that all my experiences that I have done have put me where I feel I can help this club compete for championships and hopefully be one of the model franchises of MLS,” he said.

RBNY won the Supporters’ Shield in his second year as sporting director. Some of the most notable players signed under Hamlett are star playmaker Alejandro “Kaku” Romero and ace center back Tim Parker. The team also drafted promising strikers Tom Barlow and Brian White.

On another note, after a successful 2018 campaign, the former Chicago coach decided not to make any major changes to their roster going into last season. This idea didn’t prove to be successful.

Denis Hamlett’s toughest task of his young sporting director career would be to rally the team back to their glory days of 2018.

Originally from Haiti, Ralph 'Onz' Chery started his writing career as a City College of New York student with The Campus. He also wrote for First Touch, the Cosmopolitan Soccer League and other local leagues. After graduating, Onz started covering the New York Red Bulls for ESNY and joined Haitian Times.