The 2015 season was always destined to be one of change for the New York Red Bulls. While the faces of the franchise were leaving, it was expected that the player at the left back position would not change.
Roy Miller has been the consistent starter since mid-2010 and is the longest tenured player currently on the roster. He might even be the longest tenured member of the organization after long-time equipment manager Fernando Ruiz. Most fans and pundits predicted him as the sure starter for this season considering the unheralded signings brought in to provide depth at the left back position.
What they didn't count on was the arrival of Jamaican international Kemar Lawrence.
Who is this guy?
Following the departure of Ambroise Oyongo in the multi-step Felipe-Sacha Kljestan trade/acquisition, the Red Bulls were in the market for left back depth. Like most MLS teams, New York brought in a number of trialists to fight for fringe roster spots during the preseason. One of those was the man who, due to his wheels, is called Taxi. Lawrence was no stranger to the ways of MLS having been on a trial with D.C. United back in July 2014, although said trial did not yield a contract.
After impressing head coach Jesse Marsch in training, the Red Bulls quietly acquired Lawrence via transfer from Kingston side Harbour View FC.
Since then, Lawrence (who's earned 18 caps for Jamaica) has shown to be the perfect fit in Marsch’s system. Even prior to his stellar performance in his first start in the home opener against D.C., Marsch knew that he had something special. The Red Bulls’ skipper was quick to offer praise to his young left back after that March outing.
"From the day that he arrived into camp, we could see that he was the real deal. Even though he's a young player, we felt very strongly about a lot of his qualities and his competitiveness.
"One of the toughest positions on our team tactically is the outside back, and we ask them to be very aggressive defensively, to go [forward], and when they're not able to get the ball then they have to recover," he continued. "I think his qualities, physically, fit exactly the way we want to play. Honestly, I knew he'd play well. He hasn't played poorly yet, and we knew he'd play well and he did."
Speed and Skill
As the New York gaffer noted, Taxi’s motor and top-end speed are important attributes for the outside backs to possess in the high press; he is able to contribute in the attacking third both offensive and defensively while possessing the ability to get back on defense to stop the opposition's counter-attack. Lawrence has done nothing but prove his coach right since his debut, and against FC Dallas, Lawrence put those very skills on display.
Per Opta, Lawrence made defensive plays all over the field for New York. Not only did he make interceptions (blue triangle), tackles (green) and recoveries (orange) on the left side of the field, Taxi used his speed and tenacity to register two defensive blocks (yellow) and five clearances (purple) in and above the 18-yard box, including one key block early in the game.
In his piece earlier in the week, Austin highlighted Lawrence showcasing his speed and awareness against FC Dallas with his 16th minute block/interception that denied Fabian Castillo a scoring opportunity.
This play has been indicative of Taxi’s play throughout the season. Lawrence has not only been terrific manning the left side, he’s been adept at putting out fires all over the field. This ability has been vital in the high press as the Red Bulls’ midfield will, at times, leave open gaps for their opponents as they press for turnovers.
The rise of Taxi Lawrence now puts the Red Bulls in a position they couldn't have envisioned back in March; they're going to miss him when he goes on international duty. And Lawrence's summer is potentially a very busy one.
Already included in Jamaica's Copa America 30-man provisional roster, Taxi is expected to be included on its Gold Cup roster as well. Luckily for the Red Bulls, Lawrence isn't expected to miss much action for the Copa America. If he’s called into the Jamaican team for the June tournament in Chile he would definitely miss the June 5th match against the Houston Dynamo and the June 20th match versus the Vancouver Whitecaps. However, Lawrence wouldn’t likely miss more games unless the Reggae Boyz shock the soccer world and advances out of a group that includes Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
Embodiment of MLS talent
Aside from his stellar play, Kemar Lawrence is exactly the type of player who contributes to winning MLS teams: young, fast, hungry, possessing high stamina, and desperate to make an impact. After years of scouring Europe for roster reinforcements, the Ali Curtis-led Red Bulls have shifted its focus to finding talent in the Western Hemisphere. Due to the restrictions of the MLS salary cap, it's imperative that teams find bargains and there's no greater bargain in the soccer world than CONCACAF talent.
Since MLS is our most favorite and equally most ridiculous league to follow, we won't know how much money Taxi is making until the MLS Players Union releases the salary numbers. However, it's fairly reasonable to believe that potential All-Star Kemar Lawrence isn't pulling in anywhere near $100K this season. This is is exactly the type of low-cost/high-production signing that are the hallmarks of successful MLS teams.
The emergence of Taxi Lawrence has probably resulted in Costa Rican and World Cup veteran Roy Miller getting Wally Pipped while also transforming New York's backline and potentially raising the ceiling of the 2015 New York Red Bulls. However, as with all young players at Lawrence's talent level, we must question whether he's going to be in MLS and with the Red Bulls for the long haul or merely using the league as opportunity to showcase his abilities for a lucrative jump to Europe.
Due to his immediate impact, most fans are hoping for the former, but certainly wouldn't begrudge the latter if Lawrence is able to help secure silverware during his hypothetical short time spent terrorizing the left side of the field in MLS.