The New York Red Bulls are a team in need of a centerpiece.
After losing valuable players in the off-season with nothing in return, they are looking more at in-house youth than well-known talent and have a fan-base worried about the future.
Meanwhile, other teams around Major League Soccer have made huge moves to bring in international talent that may be cornerstones in unifying a starting XI.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it seems as though New York is copying its strategy from the 2018-19 off-season. Fan frustrations are not new when it comes to New York when it comes to roster management. The past three seasons have seen multiple national teams capped and career studded players leave the club either through transfer or free agency.
ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman recently spoke on the “Extratime” podcast about the upcoming MLS season and, in particular, on the Red Bulls’ lack of roster moves.
“Hey New York Red Bulls, you doing anything? Are you doing anything,” Twellman said starting at the 33:50 minute mark. “Is Chris Armas even alive?”
“I am stunned that this is where they are,” he continued. “I am stunned that they haven’t signed anyone for Chris Armas to actually use. You can’t replace (roster departures) with USL Two players… The crickets that I’ve heard from you guys, that is as disheartening of anything I’ve heard this off-season.”
Of the four new faces that are joining the team for 2020 so far, two are midfielders from RBNY II in USL Championship, New Jersey natives Chris Lema & Jared Stroud, and one is academy prospect John Tolkin. This follows the same trend that was set last year when the team brought in nine new players over the course of the full season with three being from the RBNY ecosystem. By the time that the 2019 season kicked off though, the Bulls had added six players with only one coming from its own farm system.
Now that isn’t to say these new players aren’t good. In fact, some of them were standouts when playing in the USL. Stroud was one of the second division’s best assist-men in 2018 when he led the second team with 11 while also picking up seven goals. Despite a slower season last year, he still led the team over the two-year span in both goals and assists. He is going to fit the New York style of pushing forward, feeding either Daniel Royer on the opposite side or Brian White, while also being in prime position to feed off a rebound and keep the momentum going.
He and Lema were both key reasons why the Red Bulls II team was such a force in the front half of the 2019 season. Despite the team’s drop-off towards the end of the year, resulting in a one-and-done loss to the Indy Eleven in the playoffs, I think they can bring something to the team. The most optimal part of these pick-ups is that I can imagine one of these players filling into a role similar to Vincent Bezecourt (who played the 2019 season for both the first and second teams) without taking up an international spot like the French native did.
The problem is you can’t build a team around any of these additions. With both of the new midfielders, it’s hard to think who’ll they find a forward connection with in order to break past MLS defenses. While one or both of them will find Royer or White, those two players weren’t enough last season and a departing BWP will put more pressure on them, and Tom Barlow, to breakthrough.
To once again look at last year, the team’s biggest signings before kickoff were defender Amro Tarek from Orlando City, an aggressive defender that has brought some relief to a lacking midfield by playing up, and Mathias Jørgensen, a promising 19-year old Danish forward who has the potential to become a huge part of the team. While both of these pickups are good, with my understanding being that the fan-base sometimes under-appreciated Tarek in particular, they were pieces of a puzzle the organization had, and has, failed to fully complete.
The team needs a player that can set up plans in the field and execute them well. When New York lacked this sort of player last year it showed in the early season struggles and while adjustments in the field and mid-season loans like Josh Sims, who will be returning to Harrison once again for at least half of 2020, they were not enough. It needs someone like Atlanta’s Josef Martínez, NYCFC’s Héber, or DC United’s Paul Arriola who not only score or help others do so, but set-up plays behind the line to pressure the opposition. The game isn’t just about scoring, but also about making the other team think you’re going and making them feel threatened.
Recently head coach Chris Armas, heading into his second full season with the team, spoke with the media about the roster and upcoming season. In one of his responses, the Bronx native explained that it takes time to make an optimized roster.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Armas said on a January 23 conference call. “So in the big picture, I have to have patience. Adding quality and difference-makers, I welcome that at any time. But the train is moving, it’s moving fast. Guys are on-board. The longer time goes without players being here, it’s not ideal.
“If we’re going to add, I want the guy here yesterday to be honest. But I have to understand it’s part of it and that’s okay.”
Armas may already have one player ready to add as the Sims’ loan will run until the end of June with the option to buy him then. Even with his short time with the club at the end of 2019 Armas said he was impressed with how quickly the Southampton player adapted.
“We were really excited when Josh came because he fit both roles really well. Having him back with the team, it’s no longer a question of how he’ll fit in… Josh operates with intelligence, he looks to stretch back lines and is a good 1v1 attacker. He adds something we don’t have an abundance of, a guy who can create on his own.”
When the whistle blew after 120 minutes in Chester, PA last October, the Red Bulls’ roller-coaster season was finally over after one playoff game as both Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles hugged one-another for what many fans expected to be the last time. They departed, much like Tyler Adams did following the 2018 season, with former team captain Robles landing with expansion side Inter Miami.
As more names like Derrick Etienne, Bezecourt, and Michael Murillo also leave, the team will have more salary to work with but the Red Bulls need to be careful in not under-valuing players. They seem to be doing that as a report came out last weekend from Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol that the team declined a $500 thousand offer for USMNT player Aaron Long from English Premier League side West Ham United.
What this says is that the team isn’t going to create talent just to ship it off to another country (unless the team has an “R” or “B” somewhere in its name) so fans can take some solace in that.
“We have a solid group, a young group,” Armas said in that same conference call. “On the inside, we’re working really hard to get the right pace. If we find that in the next few weeks, it’s a plus. That’s what we’re looking to do.”
The New York Red Bulls will host FC Cincinnati on Sunday, March 1 to kick off the 2020 Major League Soccer season.
The season is both the 25th anniversary for MLS and also the 10 year anniversary of the team beginning play at Red Bull Arena.
Update: Article originally incorrectly stated that both Chris Lema
and Jared Stroud left NYRB II mid-season in 2019. The two players
that left mid-season for the first team were Rece Buckmaster and