NYCSportsNation
Jake LaCava, seen here playing against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2021, was drafted by St. Louis CITY SC last Friday in the MLS Expansion Draft (Credit: New York Red Bulls)
Jake LaCava, seen here playing against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2021, was drafted by St. Louis CITY SC last Friday in the MLS Expansion Draft (Credit: New York Red Bulls)

The loss of Jake LaCava from the New York Red Bulls was a frustrating moment for fans on Friday night. While the 21-year old winger never got his chance to play in Major League Soccer, his potential was something many fans were looking forward to seeing. Instead, the team left him unprotected during the recent Expansion Draft. There, the incoming St. Louis CITY SC selected him with their fifth pick before immediately trading him to Inter Miami CF.

LaCava became the latest MetroStar/RBNY player to be taken in an expansion draft. The list of 13 includes names from last three drafts (that New York was eligible in). The full list is as follows:

  • Manny Lagos (Midfielder) – 1997
  • Zach Thornton (Goalkeeper) – 1997
  • Andrew Lewis (Defender) – 1997
  • Pablo Brenes (Midfielder) – 2004
  • Craig Ziadie (Defender) – 2004
  • Danny O’Rourke (Midfielder) – 2006
  • Joe Vide (Midfielder) – 2007
  • Jeff Parke (Defender) – 2008
  • Nick Zimmerman (Midfielder) – 2009
  • Chris Duvall (Defender) – 2016
  • Hassan Ndam (Defender) – 2018
  • Jared Stroud (Forward) – 2020
  • Jake LaCava (Forward) – 2022

[N/A – 2010, 2011, 2014, 2017, 2019 (exempt), 2021 (exempt)]

LaCava was signed for a first team MLS contract at the start of 2022 but never saw any action in the first division. Instead, the Connecticut native was immediately loaned back to the USL Championship. He played the entire 2022 season with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which went on to reach the Eastern Conference finals. LaCava played a big role in that, making 37 appearances and scoring 12 goals (2nd most on the team) across the regular season and playoffs.

The reaction online has been negative. Emotions of fans range from anger to disapointment.

 

So why did LaCava’s exit from the team infuriate so many fans on social media? The answer is two fold.

Players Protected Over LaCava

First, the players New York did protect over LaCava left plenty of people confused. The 12 players protected included winger Cameron Harper and forward Tom Barlow.

Barlow especially drew ire from fans who don’t believe the St. Louis, MO native has been effective at his role in RBNY’s system. Despite playing in nearly 40 games, Barlow only scored five goals (four in the regular season). His presence was mostly relegated to a second half substitute role. Of the eight games he started, New York won three of them and he scored in none of those games.

With Harper, the argument could be made that LaCava has more potential upside than the injury prone former Celtic player. Both play winger, but LaCava’s presence has been more attacking compared to Harper’s support role where he had two assists this season. However his time in New York has been hampered multiple times by being sidelined. First with a leg injury that affected him during the summer and again at the end of the season.

It’s honestly debatable which player is “better” for New York going forward. However, had the Bulls protected LaCava over Harper it’s difficult to see St. Louis taking the latter over other available options.

Many fans also compared the decision to not protect LaCava to the 2018 Expansion Draft. There, New York didn’t protect defender Hassan Ndam who was picked by FC Cincinnati. Funnily enough, Ndam returned to New York this year and was once again not protected in the draft. To many, the idea of developing talent and not protecting them is baffling. This is doubly true when the team does protect players most fans don’t value. It’s waisted resources developing this talent for a little General Allocation Money.

State of Roster Heading into 2023

Another reason fans are frustrated by the loss of LaCava is a difficulty in understanding what the team wants going forward.

Immediately following the playoff loss head coach Gerhard Struber emphasized his desire to keep the team together for next season. He noted that while “the team was not ready to win” in 2022, the growth of young players and development of players like John Tolkin meant this was a key for 2023. In the final media session ahead of the offseason, RBNY head of sport Jochen Schneider doubled down on these remarks.

However, in that time many things have happened. First of all, Caden Clark seemingly indicated that is time in New York is over. The young midfielder was on loan from German side RB Leipzig and while talks are still on-going, it doesn’t seem likely he will return. Especially considering his decrease in on-the-field presence following his return from surgery last season. Further still, team captain and U.S. Men’s National Team defender Aaron Long has been linked to multiple MLS and English teams. 

Combined that with the complete loss of multiple RBNY academy talents over the last year. In late August, forward Jeremy Rafanello was signed from the Red Bulls reserve team to eventual MLS Cup finalist Philadelphia Union. In his case, the issue of homegrown rights meant New York couldn’t sign him without paying Philadelphia. But still, his loss to the Union is just one of a handful over the last few months. Following the end of the season, Omar Sowe’s contract was also declined for renewal after he was signed by the first team last year. Following two seasons scoring the most goals on RBNY II in the USL Championship, Sowe played 2022 in Iceland on loan away from the first team. Finally, LaCava’s recent exit is another young goal scorer gone from the organization.

For a team that stresses it wants to “keep the group together”, their actions haven’t really spoken to that. Losing players like Long and Clark represent the current talent. The players are ready to compete in MLS. The younger players like Sowe and LaCava represent future stars. Neither group is seemingly secure.

An argument can be made that LaCava, someone who hadn’t made any impact on the first team, isn’t a major blow. The counter is as follows; A player like Jake LaCava has the potential to be a piece in a future New York Red Bulls team that competes. The squad New York has now is not that. If New York really wants to keep the group together as is, it’s difficult to see the team as anything more than a first round playoff exit squad that doesn’t excite.

Depending on how the roster shakes up in the offseason, LaCava could have seen first team time in New York. Instead, he’ll be playing Florida once again. He played against NYRB II last season and in 2023 the winger will probably play against his former club in Harrison.

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