News out of the New York Red Bulls' training session on Monday: the team is just about covering its center back needs at the moment, despite having five specialists in the squad.
Kristian Dyer reports for Metro (no relation) that Ronald Zubar's injury problems continue, and held him out of working with the team - yet again. The French veteran was penciled in as the center piece of a remodeled RBNY defense at the start of this season, but has not been fit to play (or even do much training) since limping off the field in Kansas City during the Red Bulls' first MLS game of the year.
Fortunately, the form of RBNY's other veteran French center back, Damien Perrinelle, has ensured Zubar's fitness woes have not been unduly problematic. Perrinelle has paired well with Matt Miazga, and subsequently Karl Ouimette, and the team's defense has been a strength of its early-season games.
Weathering the challenge to date is validation of team management's decision to load up the roster with center backs. Five players competing for two spots on the field seems like a lot, and RBNY has depth issues at other key positions as a result (left wing and striker, most glaringly). But right now, the Red Bulls have just enough available central defenders to meet foreseeable requirements.
Indeed, one more injury and the team might be considered to be experiencing something of a CB crisis. That is not to be alarmist, but here is what Jesse Marsch has likely already spotted:
- Zubar's continuing uncertainties make it unwise to rely on his return any time soon. The team must presumably plan for its next few games - three MLS matches between May 24 and June 5, and a USOC fourth round game that will fall on either June 16 or 17; plus another MLS fixture on June 20 - without any confidence the Frenchman will be available.
- Matt Miazga is on international duty for the U-20 World Cup, and will remain so until at least June 7: the end of the tournament's group stage. The US squad is not a favorite, but it would also not be surprising to see the young Americans get at least as far as the quarterfinals (June 14) or the semifinals (June 17). And if they make the semis, they'll be in either the final or the third-place playoff on June 20. Right now, it would be unwise to bank on Miazga's return to RBNY before the end of the U-20 World Cup - and that means he may even need time to recover through the Red Bulls' MLS games on June 24 and June 28.
Uncertainty over the availability of those two players puts pressure on RBNY's depth at center back. If either Perrinelle or Ouimette is injured or suspended in the near-term, the Red Bulls will need to turn to a hitherto least-preferred option: Roy Miller (who has long been considered an international-class center back option by Costa Rica, but not so much by his club) or Andrew Jean-Baptiste.
Even if Perrinelle and Ouimette stay fit and available for the next couple of weeks, Marsch must also keep an eye on Ouimette's international obligations. The former Montreal homegrown signing has been a regular feature of Canada's squads recently. The Canada national team has World Cup qualifiers to play on June 11 and June 16, against Dominica. Again, looking at the squad right now, it would be sensible to assume Ouimette might get a call for those games.
And, if Perrinelle and Ouimette are the first-choice centerback pairing for the foreseeable future - and they are - it is smart to try to figure out how to get them some rest. The US Open Cup game on June 16 or 17, which should be against lower-league opposition, looks increasingly like a match Marsch will almost have to try to keep key players out of - because he will need them three days later for the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps on June 20.
A lot can happen between now and mid-June, but Jesse Marsch must decide which players he is willing to allow to join NYRB II's US Open Cup campaign now: the USL side kicks off against Jersey Express on Wednesday, May 20. Whether the Baby Bulls win or lose is immaterial - any player participating for them cannot play for another team in the competition.
RBNY might decide to keep all its MLS players out of the NYRB II USOC squad, simply to be cautious and maintain maximum availability for its own adventure in the Cup. But one decision should already have been taken: Andrew Jean-Baptiste should not play for the reserve team in the Cup. Not on May 20, at the very least.
He is the fifth-choice center back on RBNY's MLS depth chart at the moment: the only specialist CB not to have first-team minutes this season. He is a regular for NYRB II. Under different circumstances, he'd be considered a shoo-in to start against Jersey Express.
But he is also the first-team center back most likely to be neither tired, nor on international duty, or essential to the June 20 MLS game against Vancouver when RBNY's USOC campaign starts on June 16 or 17.
Marsch simply has to keep AJB available for the first team's US Open Cup endeavors, at least until he knows more about player availability in mid-June. So AJB should not be playing in Newark for NYRB II on Wednesday, May 20.