Friday, December 12 is the 13th day of the New York Red Bulls' 2014 (soon to be 2015) off-season. It is very early days yet, but the squad is a shambles: just 20 players under contract and there are depth issues at pretty much every position.
Ryan Meara's loan to NYCFC leaves RBNY a goalkeeper short of the usual quota (three). The defense currently comprises two specialist center backs (Armando and Matt Miazga), two left backs (Roy Miller and Ambroise Oyongo), one right back (Chris Duvall), and whatever you think Connor Lade might be (is he even a defender still?).
Midfield looks OK, if one accepts that there will be no like-for-like replacement of Thierry Henry and the primary task is to build an experienced unit that outperforms its component parts. This is a comforting thought. Until one considers the likelihood (imperative even, at least for this writer) that Oyongo will be next season's starting left winger in the 4-2-3-1; the defense appears even more threadbare.
Up front, the Red Bulls are currently looking at Bradley Wright-Phillips and Tim Cahill. And if the latter leaves - and he can't bring himself to say he won't - the team is down to one specialist striker.
There is a lot of work to do on returning the squad to something resembling adequate depth for a full season. And that's OK: it isn't even two weeks since RBNY played its last match of 2014. The club will doubtless be adding new players all the way to opening game of 2015, and beyond.
Nonetheless, despite a manifestly weaker squad than it had two weeks ago, RBNY has handled the off-season to date pretty well.
The afternoon of December 12 will bring the Re-Entry draft, followed by another trade window until the second phase of the Re-Entry draft on December 18. Once we tick over to 2015, we'll get the SuperDraft, plus the frantic efforts of players having rough rides in Europe to find new clubs during January's international transfer window.
RBNY has a lot of time to fix its current squad issues. And a lot of time to mess things up - which is why this might be the best moment to take a breath, and offer a word of encouragement: Bravo.
The Red Bulls have scarcely put a
foot hoof wrong over the last 13 days. Indeed, the Dispersal Draft (November 19) should probably be included in the evaluation, thereby almost doubling the streak of not making calamitous errors of judgement on the transfer market.
It won't last. There will be some headscratching moves before the new season kicks off. Even if there aren't, the only proof of a good off-season is a good start to the league campaign. RBNY hasn't had one of those for some time.
By the time March rolls around, we could be despairing or delirious. Either emotion will only last as long as results on the field seem to support it. Every new signing is a risk, as is every decision to let a player go.
And we have yet to see how the club fares without Andy Roxburgh: the Thierry Henry of RBNY's front office.
With the knowledge that the incremental gains and losses of an off-season shift from day-to-day, and there's no way of telling if it all adds up to something good until the players get back on the field, here is a recap of RBNY's 13 days of breathtaking off-season competence.
19 November: Dispersal Draft
The Red Bulls were four days away from their Eastern Conference final first leg against New England. With hindsight, we now know this was the last push in an all-or-nothing effort to win MLS Cup in Thierry Henry's last year.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Coincidentally sensible.
The risk of distracting even one player in the team by drafting someone who might be perceived as a replacement for the following season isn't worth taking when you're three games away from a trophy. RBNY didn't win the trophy, but it also didn't saddle us with a Chivas USA hand-me-down who would have added nothing to the team's preparations for New England but ceaseless speculation at a time when focus was the priority.
1 December: Thierry Henry leaves the Red Bulls
The day we learned it was always Henry's plan to let his contract expire and move on to the next phase of his career. And we learned Mike Petke had known about the plan from the start of the season. To a greater or lesser degree, the whole team must have known.
There were a few slip-ups here and there (Remember Tim Cahill's eager early-season declaration that this was the year to send the captain out with a bang?), but RBNY handled this situation with class, by showing respect for Henry's wishes and letting him define the terms of his exit from MLS and perhaps the game.
2 December: Seven contract options declined
The off-season started in earnest when RBNY announced - as all MLS teams do at the end of the year - those contract options they wouldn't be renewing.
Bobby Convey, Richard Eckersley, Kosuke Kimura, Marius Obekop, Damien Perrinelle, Saer Sene, and Ibrahim Sekagya: seven players effectively cut from the squad just two days after the team bowed out of the playoffs in New England.
This was the move that put RBNY in an early hole with its squad building: two senior right backs cut (Eckersley and Kimura), plus two central defenders (Perrinelle and Sekagya), as well as left-sided depth (Convey and Obekop) and one of the few pure forwards on the roster, Sene.
But this was also a move RBNY needed to make if it was going to have cap room for reshaping the team for 2015. All told, per the last Players' Union salary report, the players cut were collectively pulling down $976,153 in base salary - most of it, one assumes, against the cap.
Declining an option does not mean a player's time at the club is necessarily over, just that RBNY no longer sees the value in whatever salary trajectory was negotiated when the contract was signed. The Red Bulls indicated they were seeking to renegotiate with Obekop, Perrinelle and Sekagya - not in itself a guarantee any or all of those players will return, but suggesting the team is working to a salary-cap driven plan. If we see any of the three back in Harrison in 2015, it can be assumed it will on a lower salary than dictated by their contract options.
As for the rest: Convey and Sene were peripheral figures by the end of the season, expensive (by MLS standards) and expendable; Eckersley and Kimura took most of the squad's experience at right back with them, but also enough salary to find a replacement and still have plenty of cap space for at least one more senior squad player.
The biggest impact of the roster cuts was on the defense: RBNY's weakest link in 2014 was its defense. The declined options made two things clear about the off-season: RBNY will seek to address its issues in the back line (since it is perilously close to not having one after these cuts), and it has the salary room to do so.
8 December: Mini-trade window
Two days before the Expansion Draft, MLS allowed a half-day of trading between clubs. There was a lot of activity, but RBNY stood pat. Or so we thought...
10 December: Expansion Draft
The Expansion Draft came and went with zero impact on RBNY. Or so we thought...
10 December: Waiver Draft
Passing on the Waiver Draft is the rule in MLS, not the exception. RBNY was just following the herd on this one.
10 December: Olave traded to RSL
The first indication that the Red Bulls weren't just standing around wondering what to do after losing one quarter of their squad. The Olave trade, as has been well documented and endorsed by our own Matt Coyne, was extraordinary.
He's been the Red Bulls' rock at the back for the past two seasons, and they wouldn't have won the Shield in 2013 without him. But he turns 34 next season.
Could be his departure was simply because RBNY was testing the market and got an offer it couldn't refuse (as suggested by Empire of Soccer), or because Olave wanted to get back to Utah (as suggested by Matt Doyle).
Bummer for #RBNY to lose Olave, but huge credit to the organization for doing right by a guy who wanted to go back to Utah.— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) December 10, 2014
Or both or neither. Regardless, off-loading a $280,000 salary and netting more than you paid out to acquire the player in the first place is good business.
In effect, RBNY put another $480,000 in the war chest for the 2015 squad with this trade. Add that to the combined salaries of the declined options ($976,153) and Thierry Henry's cap-hit ($387,500) has cleared $1,843,653 in cap room: more than half the 2014 limit ($3.1 million).
11 December: Ryan Meara out; Sal Zizzo in
The big finish. There are a lot of ways to look at this trade, and they all come out in favor of RBNY.
There was a rumor prior to this announcement that the Red Bulls had turned down a $300,000 allocation money offer for Meara's services.
I'm hearing NYCFC offer for Ryan Meara was $300K in allocation. Huge chunk of allocation to turn down. RBNY have long-term plans for Meara— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) December 8, 2014
Hindsight tells us they didn't need it: not with $980,000 in the kitty from the options declined, and definitely not if the Olave deal was on the horizon.
But Meara is a bit of a problem for RBNY. A popular player with a promising upside: by the halfway point of his rookie year he had gone from unheralded draft pick to bona fide MLS starter with international potential. Then Kelyn Rowe trampled him, and Meara lost the best part of two years to injury. In that time, Luis Robles emerged as a 'keeper of such admirable consistency it was simply impossible for Mike Petke to do much else than throw Meara a few US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League outings.
The 'keeper simply had to move on if he wasn't going to get a start for RBNY. And the Red Bulls have every reason to want to hang on to him: the fact NYCFC would consider a player who has hardly been seen for the last two seasons to be worth $300,000 is a telling evaluation of his reputation and value.
Somehow, RBNY persuaded NYCFC to give them an Expansion Draft pick. Whether it was planned or not is irrelevant: the Red Bulls protected Meara in the draft, meaning any team who wanted him would have to trade for him; the Red Bulls got Sal Zizzo, who NYCFC burned a draft pick to acquire; and the Red Bulls did not lose any players to its new neighbors.
The speed with which the trade was executed (it was announced on December 11, but described as a done deal by MLS shortly after the draft) suggests it was pre-planned. It doesn't matter too much whether the plan was specifically for Zizzo and protection from NYCFC picks in the Expansion Draft in exchange for Meara, or it was more spontaneously negotiated after the Tenants had some players to offer. RBNY got something it needed more than allocation money: squad depth (Zizzo), a fresh start for Meara, and lost nothing at all in the Expansion Draft.
Also, Zizzo's 2014 base salary ($77K - it will go up for 2015, of course) is only about $9K higher than Meara's ($68,250). And Meara is on loan to NYCFC and contractually prohibited from playing against RBNY in 2015.
If Meara does extremely well for NYCFC next season, he at least won't be embarrassing the Red Bulls directly in any head-to-head encounters. (Does this loan include playoff games and US Open Cup? Because that really could lead to some interesting second-guessing of this deal.) Further, if he does very well and very much wants to stay at NYCFC, then he is presumably worth more than $300,000 or Sal Zizzo by that point.
The only way the Red Bulls can have messed this up is if Meara is out of contract in 2016, and can walk away from the club under some hypothetical free-agency instituted by the new CBA. This seems unlikely (free-agency; I have no idea when Meara's contract is up), and worth the risk. Neither Meara nor RBNY was benefiting greatly from his patient service as Robles's back-up.
The more realistic worst case for RBNY in this trade is Meara does not get playing time at NYCFC and suffers another season treading water as a professional. And that was his projected fate in Harrison next season anyway; just without Sal Zizzo doing whatever he does in 2015 and without the benefit of not having Jason Kreis grab a Red Bull in the Expansion Draft.
All trades are risky, and someone will blast this trade next year if Meara and NYCFC win MLS Cup while RBNY languishes at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Someone will probably blast the Red Bulls if they lose on a day when Meara makes a particularly good save on a day. And then Zizzo will break the MLS single-season assist record and be universally dismissed as a no-talent beneficiary of the "BWP effect".
And it won't matter because Meara is still a Red Bull, and his short-term success is to the benefit of RBNY in the long-term.
Also, if the Red Bulls are terrible next season it won't be because they let their back-up 'keeper hang out in the Bronx for a few months. It will be because they wasted nearly $2 million of cap space on dud signings. And Ryan Meara will still be a RBNY player (barring some catastrophic contract mismanagement) at the end of it.
11 December: Sean Davis signed
The cherry on top. A homegrown signing to back up all the recent talk of making the team younger. Davis is a central midfielder, which isn't the position of greatest need. But it will be one day, and hopefully that will be the day he emerges as a tried and tested starter in MLS.
Close to $2 million in cap space cleared, which should be ample funds to rebuild the defense that was sacrificed to make the cap room in the first place. A stagnating prospect put in a better position to succeed than he might reasonably have expected from another year in Harrison, and RBNY in a remarkably good position to benefit from any such success. Another prospect promoted from the academy. And a league veteran to bolster the depth chart.
So far so good, RBNY. Keep up the good work.