Continuing the occasional series looking at RBNY's off-season roster moves by assessing what the roster might need by way of defenders after the first week of cuts and contract renewals. The Red Bulls still have a succession of drafts, training camps, and the January transfer window (bringing with it a deluge of foreign-based players fleeing expiring contracts or bad team situations) to work through: what seems to be a problem now almost certainly won't look as concerning by the beginning of March.
But in the name of keeping track of what Ali Curtis might be trying to do, here's a look at what seem to be the issues in play with the defense after the first week of off-season action.
Under Contract: Chris Duvall, Connor Lade, Kemar Lawrence, Shawn McLaws, Matt Miazga, Karl Ouimette, Sal Zizzo, Ronald Zubar
Option Declined: Roy Miller, Damien Perrinelle, Anthony Wallace
Eight defenders on the roster is not an unhealthy number, and the starting back four for the just-concluded playoff campaign has been retained: Sal Zizzo, Matt Miazga, Ronald Zubar, and Kemar Lawrence are all contracted through 2016.
But the defense currently looks like it might be the most volatile part of the roster over the months to come. First, two of the most coveted players on RBNY's books are defenders: Matt Miazga and Kemar Lawrence. Both have been the subject of transfer rumors this season - and the rumor mill has just produced a fresh story about Lawrence. If either or both does move on this winter, they will leave behind a big gap in the starting lineup.
A recent report from BigAppleSoccer.com's Kristian Dyer revealed Red Bull's Global Soccer big guns - Gerard Houllier and Oliver Mintzlaff - met with Miazga last week, to discuss the player's future. Miazga has options, and has consistently been reported to be keeping them open. EmpireOfSoccer.com reported the young defender was "locked in" for next season, but earlier reports this year - from ESPN and Sports Illustrated - have stated RBNY has been trying to get Miazga to sign a new contract for quite a while. It would appear those efforts have yet to bear fruit. "Locked in" seems a very optimistic way of describing the fate the Red Bulls were said to be hoping to avoid: letting their top young prospect slide into 2016 without a new deal. The longer Miazga lingers on his current contract, the less likely he stays in New York.
The presence of Houllier and Mintzlaff is a reminder that Red Bull soccer has had an eye on the player for some time: he was on trial in Leipzig before he turned pro with RBNY; he had a "training stint" with Salzburg and Leipzig this winter. Miazga will ultimately decide what he wants to do with his career, but Red Bull will need to decide what is best for Red Bull. If he isn't going to sign a new deal, the question becomes whether Miazga's value is greatest on the transfer market or simply attached to RBNY for as long as his contract allows.
Nor does Red Bull inevitably get its way in these matters. Over in Europe, Salzburg has been conspicuously successful in selling top talent for top dollar recently (Sadio Mane, Kevin Kampl, and Alan were all moved on for high fees), but Andre Ramalho - carefully nurtured at Red Bull Brasil, FC Liefering, and Red Bull Salzburg - slipped away to Bayer Leverkusen on a free transfer. An occupational hazard of any youth development project is that players can and will occasionally defy the club's efforts to maximize their value, but Papa surely doesn't want to see his vaunted academy system get into the habit of letting top-tier prospects go for free.
One way or another, the Miazga situation will need to be resolved to allow Ali Curtis to determine what' he needs to do about center backs for next season. Damien Perrinelle has been cut from the squad, but is on the list of players the team says it wants back on renegotiated deals. He is also recovering from a serious injury: he is unlikely to be ready to return to training much before March, and if he's fit any time before June, it should be regarded as a bonus. Even if Perrinelle is back on the roster shortly, it is prudent to consider him out of commission for the first few months of MLS 2016.
Right now, with or without Perrinelle, RBNY has three recognized center backs who can reasonably be assumed to be fit and ready to play by March: Miazga, Ouimette, and Zubar. And two of those players - Miazga and Ouimette - are likely to have their season interrupted by international call ups. Zubar's first season with RBNY was diminished by injury. Even if Miazga stays, RBNY looks in need of another center back. And if Miazga leaves, the team might need at least two central defenders (say, one ready to compete for a starting place right away, and one who might come good over time) to fill the breach.
Ali Curtis can be assumed to have been pondering these issues for several months: he has quietly been auditioning defenders for much of the season. Whether it's a player who has already passed through RBNY's training sessions or one yet to be connected to the club, it would seem a safe bet Curtis has a shortlist of defenders close to hand, from which he'll sign one or two when the time is right.
At left back, Curtis also looks in need of cover. He decided to let Roy Miller and Anthony Wallace go, and neither has been connected with a return to the club. This would suggest there is a plan to refresh the ranks at left back. RBNY has some candidates within its own development system, of whom Scott Thomsen is at least the oldest. And there is always the transfer market. Currently, Kemar Lawrence is the obvious starter, with Connor Lade second on the depth chart, and perhaps (in a pinch) Zizzo, Ouimette, or even McLaws capable of filling the position if needed.
But it takes considerable optimism to regard that as a competitive group of left backs. And if Lawrence leaves, it starts to look like RBNY's left back plans are Connor Lade and the sincere hope there is no need to find out how the other guys can handle the assignment. RBNY could use full back cover on the left, whether Lawrence leaves or not (since he'll likely have international duty taking him out of the squad regularly next season).
Conversely, at the right back position, the team is stacked. It has four recognized specialists: Duvall, Lade, McLaws and Zizzo. And Karl Ouimette has recently been Canada's preferred starting right back. That is a lot of right backs in a group of eight defenders.
Even with CONCACAF Champions League to consider in 2016, it seems unlikely RBNY needs to invest quite so much of its roster in covering one quarter of its back line. There is a surplus at the right back position, which suggests there might be some trading ahead as the off-season progresses.
Or not. McLaws played a little center back for NYRB II this season, so perhaps he is in the process of being converted to a new position. Jesse Marsch seems very clearly to think of Karl Ouimette as a central defender. Connor Lade might reasonably be said to be better on the left side of defense, where he it seems he will be needed. Maybe the right backs are just Duvall and Zizzo, destined to compete for the start throughout 2016.
Almost anything is possible, but currently - regardless of whether Miazga and Lawrence are kept on board, or either or both leave the club - the team could use cover at center back and left back. And if trades need to be made to acquire that cover, the stack of right backs on the roster seems an obvious place to reach for a chip or two to bring to the negotiating table.