As we enter Year 25 for MLS, one of the league’s original franchises, the New York Red Bulls (formerly The New York/New Jersey MetroStars) have gone all in on the development route to team building. The MLS OG’s allowed all-time leading goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, iconic goalkeeper Luis Robles, and international fullbacks Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) and Michael Amir Murrillo (Panama) all to leave the club this off-season while relying primarily on Homegrown prospects and college draft picks to replace them.
Low Budget Bulls
It is a risky ploy that leaves the team, which is owned by a highly successful worldwide corporation, open to charges of operating as a small market team while representing the largest city in the country.
Where are the Stars?
By taking this tack the Red Bulls stand in stark contrast to splashy signings made around MLS and not just by glamor clubs like the L.A. Galaxy, who signed Mexican star Javier Hernandez, and David Beckham’s InterMiami with their new Mexican star Rodolfo Pizarro, even Kansas City splurged on another El Tri man Alan Pulido.
As for the Red Bulls, replacements for their departed stars are low budget and in house. Long time Robles understudy Ryan Meara is the front-runner to take over for Robles. However, Meara, who picked up a recent injury, will be challenged David Jensen, who New York signed from Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Duncan to the Olympics?
Before being shelved by a late season injury Kyle Duncan had claimed Murillo’s right back spot last season. Duncan has been named to the 50 man provisional roster for the U.S. U23 Olympic Qualifiers and should start at right back. He can also play on the left.
2019 draftee Reece Buckmaster and free transfer Mandela Egbo will be battling for minutes behind Duncan while 2020 first rounder Patrick Seagrist looks to have the inside track on the left flank. 17 year-old Homegrown talent John Tolkin may also be in the mix.
BWP out – Who’s In?
New York got a preview of life sans Wright-Phillips as the once prolific striker battled injury for most of last season. Once deciding to move on from BWP the Red Bulls might have been expected to break the bank to find a high profile replacement to shoulder the scoring load but that is not how the 2020 Red Bulls roll.
Where the Goals Are?
Instead, New York will look to Brian White, Tom Barlow, and Mathias Jorgensen, along with wingers Daniel Royer and Josh Sims to supply the goals. With 9 goals in 2019, White trailed just Royer and his 11, while Barlow chipped in three in limited time. Still just 19 years old, Jorgensen spent the majority of 2019 with Red Bulls II while former England youth international Sims scored one playoff goal after failing to hit the target while on loan during the regular season.
After scoring 11, 11, and 12 goals over the past three seasons Royer is the only sure thing up front for coach Chris Armas.
Where there is flux in goal and at fullback the Red Bulls can count on consistency in the heart of the defense, although Armas will need to see a return to 2018 form from U.S. international Aaron Long and Tim Parker.
Homegrown midfielder Sean Davis will wear the captain’s armband in 2020. Will Davis follow in the footsteps of immediate predecessors Robles, Sacha Kljestan, and Dax McCarty and soon find himself on the trade market? That may depend on Davis rediscovering his eight assist form of 2018.
Kaku is Key
Although Davis is the captain, the success of the Red Bulls midfield will hinge on the performance of Alejandro Romero Gamarra, better known as Kaku. The Argentina born, Ecuadorian international began last season in a funk over a failed transfer and never came all the way back from it.
But for those anxious to give upon Kaku keep in mind that he managed five goals and six assists last season in a down year. A return to or even an improvement on 2018 numbers of five goals and 14 assists could spark a Red Bulls revival.
So Many Questions
Following a disappointing 6th place, 48 point performance in 2019, New York’s 2018 Supporters Shield season seems a very long time ago indeed. But what about 2020?
There is something admirable about the Red Bulls determination to build rather than to buy but that calculus means that an awful lot will have to go right for the Red Bulls to make the playoffs this year.
First. One of the team’s trio of young strikers will have to emerge. Can White improve from nine goals too, say 15 goals? Can Duncan live up to his promise and how can Red Bulls replace Lawrence’s two way dynamism?
And Kaku and Davis will need help in the midfield. Can Christian Casseres continue his rise?
The Red Bulls are full of players that will put in a shift, who will strive to be a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
But are there enough difference makers on this team?
That is why they play the games.
Enough of New York’s gambles will pay off to see the Red Bulls slip into one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference before making another early exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs.