Red Bulls fans have long had a love-or-hate relationship with their team's centerbacks. Toughness, tenacity, and spirit have made players like Rhett Harty, Jamison Olave and, most of all, Mike Petke favorites among the fanbase. Conversely, those who have failed to acquit themselves well have drawn unparalleled ire from supporters, even if and perhaps especially if you have played in World Cups and Champions League finals for Mexico and Barcelona respectively.
Into this polarized environment fell Ronald Zubar, a man billed as the leader of the backline in 2015 upon his offseason arrival. Maybe the cards were stacked against him. Many of the club's most beloved centerbacks achieved popularity by surpassing laughably low expectations; Jeff Parke remains to this day far and away the most successful last pick of the MLS SuperDraft. Those who have been heralded upon their signing, such as the aforementioned Rafa Marquez, have had to do much more to impress the fans and have rarely met expectations.
Player Stats (All Competitions):
12 Games Started
1055 Minutes Played
A Premier League pedigree and a relatively large salary at $320,000, the third largest on the team at the beginning of the year according to MLS Players Union data meant that anything short of an All Star-caliber year would be a disappointment. And when Zubar went down with an injury in the season opener, fans collectively groaned, wondering if Zubar would follow the same path as other ill-advised signings of aging Premier League centerbacks Mikael Silvestre and Zat Knight come to mind as recent examples who struggled with health issues and never saw consistent time despite eating up a large chunk of cap space.
Such suspicions were reinforced and to some extent confirmed by Zubar's continual absences throughout the year. Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle formed a strong partnership in the back, but when Miazga left for the U-20 World Cup, the former Wolverhampton Wanderer's absence forced fourth-string centerback Karl Ouimette to fill in, a stretch during which the team suffered their worst run of form of the season.
Though he popped into the lineup on occasion starting against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium only to come off at halftime or nicking a goal in the Open Cup Zubar did not begin to make a real impact on the team until autumn, when Miazga missed several games due to suspension and international duty. Partnered with fellow French speaker Damien Perrinelle, Zubar started to show fans the Olave-esque toughness and solidity they had been expecting all season long. As he helped the team clinch the Supporters' Shield, some fans even wondered whether he should hold onto his starting spot at the expense of Miazga, a budding US international who finished fourth in MLS Defender of the Year voting.
Alas, come playoff time Zubar returned to a reserve role, only to be thrust back into the action less than 90 minutes into the postseason once Perrinelle went down with an ACL tear. The playoffs offered Zubar a chance at redemption for a disappointing season. Players like Danny Cepero and Dave van den Bergh accomplished little during their Red Bull careers, but their playoff heroics have permanently enshrined them in Metro lore. On the other hand, Rafa Marquez's rash red cards against the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 and DC United in 2012 mark him as the greatest villain in club history while Ibrahim Sekagya's errant pass to Brad Davis against the Houston Dynamo in 2013 will forever taint his legacy with diehard supporters.
Right off the bat, Zubar sparked anxieties and evoked painful memories for Red Bulls faithful when he recklessly lunged at a ball at the top of the 18-yard box soon after coming in. He got away with a yellowâstill in my mind the correct callâbut could well have been sent off, much in the same way the similarly built Jamison Olave derailed a Shield-winning Red Bulls team after picking up a red card in the first leg of the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Zubar's most famous moment in a Red Bull uniform came mere seconds into the Eastern Conference Finals when Columbus Crew SC's Kei Kamara beat him to a flick on header from the opening kickoff, playing in Justin Meram for a crucial early goal. Despite his fairly stellar play over the next 180 minutes, the snapshot of Kamara jumping above the hapless centerback executing the exact play every regular MLS watcher, including Jesse Marsch, knew was coming will be the one fans remember of Zubar's career, at least through this offseason.
It is evident that Ronald Zubar did not live up to expectations, and that he committed crucial errors in the most significant games of the season. However, it is important to also remember that, when he did see the field, he was mostly very good. In fact, one must wonder whether or not the team would have collected its second major trophy in its history had it not been for his stellar play over the last few games of the season.
As fans look ahead to next season, assuming that Zubar returns, they would do well neither to lionize nor to vilify him just yet. Former centerbacks like Tim Ream, Markus Holgersson, and particularly Ibrahim Sekagya all struggled initially, drawing plenty of fan ire, only to become steadier, better anchors on the backline. Given a full season and (hopefully) a clean bill of health, there is plenty of reason to believe that Zubar's story can be one of equal or greater success.