Kemar Lawrence, who for the last handful of years has been in the discussion for MLS’s best left back, was officially sold to Belgian club Anderlecht on Friday.
He had asked for a trade earlier in the offseason, and at the close of the European transfer window, he departs for Belgium. The Athletic reports that the fee is around $1.25 million, 25 percent of which will go straight to MLS.
Red Bulls going too young?
The move continues the exodus of core New York Red Bulls players. We’ve known for years that the Red Bulls are always trying to get younger and stay ahead of the curve. The shocking Dax McCarty trade after the 2016 season was the first example. Since then, we’ve seen Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Luis Robles, and now Lawrence leave. They also recently sold right back Michael Amir Murillo to Anderlecht. Sometimes you wonder if the Red Bulls are trying a little too hard to avoid the aging curve.
They will be relying on youth in 2020. Recently-signed Murillo replacement Mandela Egbo is 22. 20-year-old central midfielder Cristian Cassares Jr., a highly-touted talent, is expected to take a bigger role this season. In addition to a number of younger SuperDraft products, they have five Homegrown players. Not a single rostered member of the Red Bulls is over 30.
NYRB are counting on leaps from unproven players and best XI-caliber seasons from Aaron Long (still in his own transfer limbo, though it looks like he’s staying for now), Tim Parker, and Kaku. Given the uncertainty surrounding Chris Armas as a coach, it is a significant gamble. They have survived the roster churn before — they put up 71 points and won a Supporters’ Shield in 2018, after all — but Tyler Adams isn’t walking back into the midfield, and Jesse Marsch isn’t roaming the bench. New core pieces have to emerge.
Forward Mathias Jorgensen, 19, could feature more. He played just 117 minutes last year, and with BWP out, he could see playing time in the attack around Brian White, who projects as the starting striker. Homegrown midfielder Omir Fernandez, 20, logged 568 minutes in 2019. 19-year-old Ben Mines showed flashes last year. On defense, it will be up to Egbo, Rece Buckmaster, and Kyle Duncan to shoulder a bigger load. For the non-Red Bulls diehards: No, I’m not making up names.
Fans, justifiably, want more. There have been rumors surrounding NYRB signings, but their most notable acquisitions this winter were Egbo and a renewal of young Southampton winger Josh Sims’s loan. It is hard to expect the Red Bulls to contend in the Eastern Conference with their current crop of players.
Eastern conference in flux
The top tier of the East is not obvious right now, given the uncertainty of NYCFC’s new coach and Atlanta’s offseason departures, but there are teams that will make things difficult for the Red Bulls to stick around. NYC and Atlanta still look like the best teams, along with the Philadelphia Union. Bruce Arena’s Revolution have invested heavily, and will grind out results. D.C. United and Columbus had big offseasons. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Orlando City revamped and look better for it. Thierry Henry is coaching the Impact, though Montreal is still starved for talent. Toronto FC will have a good amount of continuity, perhaps preparing for a big summer move.
Even Inter Miami could throw a wrench into things if they progress well in their first season. Not all of those teams will turn into real threats, but some will, and it’s reasonable to doubt the Red Bulls’ ability to compete. They are counting on significant internal improvement. It is a fascinating experiment, and I’d love to be proven wrong, but without replacements for top-tier players like Lawrence, the playoffs might not be a guarantee.