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RBNY's New Baby Bulls: A Look At The Under-25s On The Red Bulls' Roster

RBNY's younger players are supposed to get a fairer shake these days than in years past. So what can we expect from the less experienced pros in the squad in 2014?

Who you calling a kid?
Who you calling a kid?
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more persistent criticisms of the Backe-Soler era was a perceived lack of interest in developing young players. It was never the fairest critique of the Viking management style. Tim Ream got USMNT caps and a move to a (then) Premiership club, Bolton Wanderers. Academy graduate Juan Agudelo also won his first USMNT caps on Backe's watch at RBNY. Ryan Meara was offered a place in Ireland's U21 squad before he'd even played 10 games as a professional (the club refused to let him accept the call up). Connor Lade capped his rookie season with a place in USMNT's 2013 January training camp.

Over three seasons, the Vikings brought four rookies from relative obscurity to a level worthy of national team consideration. Not bad work for a management team allegedly not particularly invested in player development. Still, the Backe and Soler did pan through a great many prospects to find those nuggets.

In 2010, RBNY signed five draft picks and promoted Agudelo from the academy. In 2011, four draft picks were signed, Sacir Hot and Matt Kassel came in as homegrown players, and the club even brought in a young Brazilian (Marcos Paullo) and one of Sporting Kansas City's 2011 draft picks (Mike Jones, signed in mid-season by RBNY). Meara and Lade were picked up in 2013, bringing the Backe-Soler total of young players signed to 16 in three years - and that's excluding guys like Jonathan Borrajo, Brian Nielsen and Jeremy Vuolo (young but not inexperienced guys who turned pro elsewhere and were sucked into the Vikings increasingly frantic pursuit of silverware).

Of the rookies and raw talents signed between 2010 and 2012, only Meara and Lade remain from those hire-'em-fire-'em days. When Andy Roxburgh took over, he promised a more measured approach to squad building. There would be continuity. There would be patience. Talent would be given time to develop. Young players would not be jettisoned merely for not being compatible with the team's immediate needs. It is an approach that started with the appointment of a rookie head coach - Mike Petke - continued with the signing of three homegrown teenagers last season, and would appear to be supported by a quiet off-season.

Recent RBNY off-seasons have been characterized by double-digit player turnover. This year, to date, just six guys have been let go - all senior players in the squad, mostly for reasons of salary cap compliance. The team finished out last season with nine players in the squad under 25. They combined for a total of 471 minutes played in MLS - barely five games between them. Yet all are still under contract.

They may not all make it through the remainder of preseason, and some will surely move on before the end of the year. But if the new RBNY watchword is continuity, then we can hope that some of these younger players will stick around for several seasons to come. Here's a look at who they are, what they did last year, and where they might fit into Petke's plans for 2014.

Ruben Bover


Age: 21

Joined RBNY: February 8th 2013

2013 MLS Appearance Stats:

Games Played: 7 Games Started: 1  Minutes Played: 125

Goals: 0  Assists: 1  Yellow Cards: 0  Red Cards: 0

In discussion of the Roxburgh-Petke regime's attitude to player development, Bover functions as both poster boy and cautionary tale. In 2013, he converted a pre-season trial into a contract and a surprise start in the opening game of the season. On that evidence, one might suggest Petke is committed to an if-you're-good-enough-you're-old-enough selection policy. No favorites, no picking based on reputation.

However, Bover never quite fulfilled the promise his head coach spotted last winter. More than half his minutes for the first team (66) came in that opening-day start in Portland. After that, he felt the rough-side of the "no favorites" policy: featuring, if at all, as a time-killing substitute for the first team.

So Bover spent most of last season in the reserves. He attracted some favorable reviews, and has reportedly quietly converted from a winger (as he was billed on arrival at RBNY) to a central midfielder. Clearly, he is versatile.

Dubbed 'The Boss of the Reserves' by Kristian Dyer, Bover should be pushing for regular inclusion in the 18 for MLS games, and a starting role in the early round CONCACAF Champions League and US Open Cup matches by the summer.

Michael Bustamante


Age: 24

Joined RBNY: Selected in 2013 MLS Supplemental Draft (#51 overall)

2013 MLS Appearance Stats:

Games Played: 4  Games Started: 1  Minutes Played: 95

Goals: 0 Assists: 1 Yellow Cards: 0 Red Cards: 0

RBNY picked up seven players in the 2013 draft, of whom Bustamante was the third to be selected -- and one of only two to win a contract. Beating the odds has been the defining characteristic of his nascent career. He's a central midfielder in a Red Bull draft class headed by a central midfielder (Ian Christianson). He joined a squad hardly hurting for guys who can hold down the center of the field: Eric Alexander, Tim Cahill, Dax McCarty, latterly Peguy Luyindula; Jonny Steele can play in the middle; and at the start of last season, Juninho Pernambucano was expected to run the team from the center of the park.

Still, he impressed Mike Petke sufficiently to win a late-season start against Toronto (September 14th), and repaid his coach's faith by helping to set up the opening goal of that encounter. In a squad teeming with guys who can do a job in central midfield, Bustamante would appear to be superfluous. But he's building his career on defying expectations - he outlasted Juninho at RBNY - there's no reason to expect him to stop now.

His first priority will be to hold off the challenge of Bover, Christianson and Connor Lade to establish himself as first among the young midfielders in the squad.

Santiago Castano


Age: 18

Joined RBNY: December 11th, 2012

2013 MLS Appearance Stats: None.

There aren't many teenage goalkeepers kicking around the senior rosters of MLS clubs (currently, Dallas, Montreal and Toronto are the only other teams in the league to have thrown those particular dice), but RBNY scooped Castano out of the academy last year; we must assume for good reason.

Kevin Hartman was brought into the 2013 squad as what appeared to be cover for the possibility that Castano might suddenly be the only fit 'keeper on the team. (At the time of Hartman's arrival, Ryan Meara's rehab was taking longer than expected. Castano was an injury to Luis Robles away from starting.)

It would be bizarre for any club to sign a young 'keeper and not hang on to him for at least two or three seasons. If Castano is trusted to be the stand-alone third 'keeper on the roster this year, he will have met most reasonable expectations of his development.

Ian Christianson


Age: 22

Joined RBNY: Second round of 2013 MLS Draft (#22 overall)

2013 MLS Appearance Stats: None.

The forgotten man of the 2013 season, Christianson missed pretty much the entire year to injury. He logged just four reserve team appearances and an appearance off the bench in the summer friendly against Lyon.

But he was Mike Petke's first draft pick as head coach of RBNY, a left-footed midfielder who captained Georgetown to the 2012 NCAA Division 1 Championship game. This year, he'll want to get back to where he was in the 2013 pre-season: at the top of RBNY's pile of young players.

Chris Duvall

Age: 22

Joined RBNY: Second round of 2014 MLS Draft (#22 overall)

Be it as Metrostars or Red Bulls, the club has never failed to sign its top draft pick - yes, even Eric Brunner signed, then unsigned after some front office shenanigans. So Chris Duvall would be a very unfortunate man indeed if he doesn't make the 2014 roster.

Sure, RBNY's first pick this year was in the second round, but that puts Duvall in some esteemed company: Jozy Altidore, Eddie Gaven, Tim Ream, Dane Richards, and Seth Stammler were all second round selections. The only MLS rookie of the year this club has ever produced - Rodrigo Faria - was also drafted in the second round.

So the right back's task is pretty straightforward: win a contract for 2014 and then set about adding his name to the team's honor roll of second tier draft picks.

Richard Eckersley


Age: 24

Joined RBNY: January 27th, 2014

2013 MLS Appearance Stats (for Toronto FC):

Games Played: 16 Games Started 16 Minutes Played: 1438

Goals: 0 Assists: 0 Yellow Cards: 4 Red Cards: 0

Eckersley doesn't really belong in this conversation. Unlike the rest of RBNY's under-25s, he's an established MLS player, brought to the squad to compete for the starting right back spot with immediate effect.

If anything, he stands as commentary on the club's lamentable player development policies. Every other player under 25 in the squad started their MLS career at RBNY, but none have accumulated the first team minutes and experience that Eckersley brings: 72 appearances over three seasons with Toronto FC.

The first team is not as old as some might suggest. Eric Alexander turns 26 in April; Dax McCarty will be 27 shortly thereafter; Armando, Kosuke Kimura, Roy Miller, Luis Robles, Lloyd Sam, Jonny Steele and Bradley Wright-Phillips are all still on the south side of 30. But, despite having one of the best academies in the country, there isn't a homegrown Red Bull projected to crack the starting 11 this season.

Still, nine of the players on this list are holdovers from last season, or the season before. This bodes well for RBNY's future. The club is, hopefully, edging away from its catch-and-release player development policy. But for now, Richard Eckersley, at a not particularly youthful (for a professional footballer) 24, is the youngest man on the team with a bona-fide chance of starting the first game of the season.

Connor Lade


Age: 24

Joined RBNY: December 5th, 2011

2013 MLS Appearance Stats:

Games Played: 5 Games Started: 2 Minutes Played: 166

Goals: 0 Assists: 0 Yellow Cards: 0 Red Cards: 0

It's been a career of two halves for Connor Lade. In his rookie season, 2012, he logged more than 20 league starts, won Thierry Henry's heart and a call up to USMNT's January camp. Not bad for a kid playing for Hans Backe, a coach with a (somewhat unjust) reputation for ignoring the talents of young players in general, and young Americans in particular.

In 2013, Lade was expected to kick on and nail down a first team place, maybe even win a cap or two for his national team. It was not to be. Injury prevented him from making a case for a sustained run in the first team. Consequently, we have very little idea where Mike Petke sees Lade fitting into his plans.

Versatility was the quality which won Lade all those starts under Backe. He's small (optimistically listed as 5' 7" by RBNY), but mobile and astute. Under Backe, he looked increasingly like a right back or defensive right-sided midfielder. But he can play either side of the pitch if required.

In 2012, it felt as though the answer to any defensive or midfield problem was Lade. In 2013, not so much. A couple of starts filling in at left back - arguably his weakest position - appeared to do little more than convince Petke to hunt down a specialist (David Carney, now with A-League's Newcastle Jets). All told, he got less than two games worth of minutes in MLS and one full game in US Open Cup. Not enough for a man who was once on Jurgen Klinsmann's radar.

In 2014, he needs playing time and he needs to find a position. Or vice versa. Easier said than done because, right now, Lade looks to be third (at best) on the depth chart for every role he might feasibly fill.

Under such circumstances, a trade is usually in all parties' best interest. But it's hard to find a new club without a clear sense of your best position. He is most likely going to be reduced to hoping to force his way onto the pitch for CONCACAF Champions League. Then he can seek to turn those performances into more minutes in MLS - not necessarily for RBNY.

Ryan Meara


Age: 23

Joined RBNY: Second round of 2012 MLS Draft (#31 overall)

2013 MLS Appearance Stats: None

RBNY needs Meara a little more than he needs RBNY. With him, the club has two starting-quality 'keepers on the roster, either capable of stepping up should the other falter. The team can rotate Meara and Luis Robles for MLS, US Open Cup and CCL without much concern. Without him, RBNY needs a ready-to-start second 'keeper, while Meara would presumably only move for a starting role or the chance to be a reserve at a higher level.

He will be second to Robles at the start of the season, a consequence of the latter's role in securing the Supporters' Shield last year. But CCL and US Open Cup should bring opportunity for regular starts during the summer, though its unlikely Meara will match the 1830 minutes he logged for RBNY in his injury-curtailed rookie year.

Matt Miazga

HE'S GOT THE ABILITY TO DOMINATE A GAME   -Paul O'Donnell, Red Bulls U18 coach


Joined RBNY: May 30th, 2013

2013 MLS Appearance Stats:

Games Played: 1 Games Started: 0 Minutes: 14

Goals: 0 Assists: 0 Yellow Cards: 0 Red Cards: 0

Armando's signing as the center back who will challenge Ibrahim Sekagya for the starting role alongside Jamison Olave indicates RBNY is no hurry to throw Miazga into the fray. Instead, RBNY's homegrown US & Poland youth international (he's represented both countries at U18 level) gets the chance to spend at least this season challenging for first team minutes without necessarily being required to instantly make the jump from talented youngster to pro.

If he's ready to start CCL games in August or September, he can be regarded as developing ahead of schedule.

Amando Moreno



Joined RBNY: December 11th, 2012

2013 MLS Appearance Stats:

Games Played: 2 Games Started: 0 Minutes Played: 2

Goals: 0 Assists: 0 Yellow Cards: 0 Red Cards: 0

Like Castano and Miazga, Moreno is an academy product, a homegrown signing (meaning his salary is exempt from the cap), and a US youth international. And like them, he's not under a lot of pressure this season. Doubtless he wants playing time, but he doesn't need it.

He's a prolific goal scorer at youth level, but his work for the first team last year suggested he may currently be better regarded as more of a supporting player in the attack, perhaps even an attacking midfielder. He'll work it out eventually, but the answer isn't required this year.

If, as he did in 2012, he can get a start in US Open Cup and can log more than the two minutes in MLS he managed for his rookie season, he's moving his career along nicely.

Marius Obekop


Age: 19

Joined RBNY: March 18th, 2013

2013 MLS Appearance Stats:

Games Played: 5 Games Started: 0 Minutes Played: 69

Goals: 0 Assists: 0 Yellow Cards: 0 Red Cards: 0

In his few appearances last year, Obekop looked to be an all-out, guns-blazing, attacking player. He's got the pace to be a winger, and seems to enjoy dribbling into tight spaces. Nor is he afraid to shoot.

Unfortunately, Mike Petke's preference on the wings is for battlers and ball carriers. Lloyd Sam, the only true winger in the squad last year, only got 814 minutes - and if he hadn't scored five goals in the equivalent of nine matches worth of time on the pitch, he almost certainly wouldn't be challenging Petke to adjust his thinking this season.

On the scant evidence of last year's appearances, Obekop is not as polished or proficient as Sam. Whenever Petke does mention the young Cameroonian, it tends to be in close proximity to words like "raw" and "instinctive".

So he has some work to do on refining his game for the pros, and impressing a coach who values tactical discipline over flair. As Lloyd Sam has proven, a few goals can be sufficient to win Petke around to a more attacking player's way of thinking.

Eric Stevenson

IT'S HARD TO STOP HIM. HE'S A LITTLE SPITFIRE.   -Darren Sawatzky, head coach Sounders FC U23s

Age: 23

Joined RBNY: Second round of 2014 MLS Draft (#34 Overall)

Of all the younger guys on the preseason roster, Stevenson is perhaps the least likely to be with the team come opening day. He is billed as a technically-gifted, wide midfielder. He can shoot well. And, but for an adverse MLS ruling, he might have been snapped up by Columbus Crew as a homegrown player.

So the guy can play, but RBNY's right midfield is crowded with the likes of Eric Alexander, Lloyd Sam, maybe Connor Lade, in a pinch Kosuke Kimura or even Chris Duvall. When he was drafted, RBNY management was open about Stevenson's selection being "a flier". He wasn't at the MLS Combine, so the staff are getting their first close look at him in preseason.

If he wins a contract for 2014, he's done well.

What do you make of RBNY's younger players? Let us know in the comments!