In case you're wondering, yes, that's Corey Hertzog on the left. And yes, he and Greg Sutton are fist bumping.
The U.S. Under-17 team, who won the Nike International Friendlies in November after beating Brazil had five Red Bulls prospects, including Wesley Wade who scored the game tying goal against France in the game's closing minutes.
The Red Bulls Academy, named the third best in the country by Soccer America, includes the Rockland County's player of the year, the New Jersey Herald's player of the year and the Lehigh Valley Express-Times player of the year. Five Red Bulls Academy players were invited to the U.S. U-15 camp. And surely, there are others in the academy who have earned high marks and praise from their local media and various soccer organizations.
General Manager Erik Soler recently told the New York Post that he wants the academy to produce "game changers."
These are facts.
It's also a fact that Hertzog, Kassel and Hot played in seven MLS regular season games for the club total, without a single start among them, making them among the least experienced players on the squad. Hertzog had five appearances, but only one where he played more than 10 minutes, and three where he came on in the 90th minute. Kassel filled out the rest of the appearances for the team, and played more minutes the Hertzog. Hot didn't have one appearance for the club.
Granted, the talent pool is diluted a bit as the squad is limited to players with the Generation adidas designation, but Hot made the start in their game against Ajax's reserve team and Hertzog scored after subbing in at the 44 minute mark. Kassel made an appearance, too, coming on in the 50th minute. In their 3-2 win against FC Volendam, all three started, with Herzog coming off in the 56th minute. In their final game, a 2-0 loss versus Almere City, Kassel and Herzog subbed on, with Herzog creating more than a few chances for the Generation adidas crew.
If academy talent and the performance of largely inconsequential reserve players seems trivial to the upcoming season, consider the coach and GM, who seem allergic to American youth, except, apparently, in goal.
Juan Agudelo and recently departed Tim Ream aside, there just doesn't seem to be any room for young, professionally inexperienced, domestically trained players on this Red Bulls side. And Agudelo is the only player to come out of the academy who gets regular playing time. Soler and Hans Backe seem content to play imported players, like Markus Holgersson or Victor Palsson.
To step away from the laundry list of player management grievances many Red Bull watchers (rightfully) have, the team seems to be making steps in the right direction. Depth seems to be a priority this off-season and some of their moves (Wilman Conde, Kenny Cooper) show that players with MLS experience are important.
But when Soler goes to the media and says Hertzog would be a great player to have if only they could have got him at 16 the future doesn't bode well for him or Kassel or Hot. Or Ryan Meara or Connor Lade. Or perhaps even Jonathan Borrajo or Jeremy Vuolo, for that matter. That's seven players who, if past performance really is the best indicator of future behavior, are reserve squad fodder at best and roster filler at worst. Not to mention the bevy of trailists the team brought on, some of who the team is going to have to sign to fill out the roster.
This problem can only get worse as those decorated high schoolers mentioned earlier get better - remember, the Red Bulls, apparently, have a solid youth academy - and get ready to go pro. Eventually, if Soler's gets what he wants in a youth academy that produces game changing players, he's going to be faced with a problem: Either turn into North America's single greatest exporter of youth talent and use that money to buy the Scandinavians he so loves or bite the bullet and use the players he and his coach seem so unwilling to play.
Are Soler and Backe set on doing this a more "MLS way?" Only time will tell, but when players like Meara are heralded as "real prospects" by college soccer watchers, the Bulls are wasting a ton of potential out on practice fields at Montclair State University, instead of grooming them to take the field at Red Bull Arena.