It was an interesting signing; personally, I was excited. I was hoping RBNY would pick up an exciting foreign talent, their own Sebastian Giovinco. It's become a bit cliche now in MLS: everyone wants their own Giovinco; an effective forward signed from abroad who isn't on the wrong side of 30. Veron isn't quite a Giovinco - yet.
He hasn't even cemented a starting place for RBNY, and it's easy to see why. Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella have been two of the best wingers in the league. Sacha Kljestan, arguably better suited to a deeper role, is excelling at #10 in the high-pressing system employed this season. And, of course, Bradley Wright-Phillips is, well, Bradley Wright-Phillips; there's almost no chance he'll get displaced by Veron.
Despite this, it's clear the Red Bulls signed a talented player.
A talented player from a Copa Libertadores winning side as well, who offloaded him for around $2.2m. Why was he sold? Some say it's because of his knee injury, but I think it could be something on the mental side of things (which may be partially because of the injury).
One thing that separates the good players from the great players is confidence. A lack of it can turn a good player into a mediocre player. Talents turn into pub quiz answers without it. A player can be a great dribbler, a great passer, a great tackler, but that means nothing without the confidence to go with it. Lionel Messi is great because he is not only a great player, but he has the confidence to match. He is not apprehensive when on the ball. He knows what he wants to do the second he has the ball at his feet and he doesn't second guess himself.
On an MLS level, it could be argued that Giovinco - who went from star player at Parma after scoring 15 goals in 36 games, to simply another player at Juventus, followed by star player once again at Toronto FC - is experiencing a resurgence of confidence as a result of his rediscovered stardom. It's an argument Giovinco pretty much made himself in an interview with The Guardian in August:
The last couple of years, I haven’t been in very good shape. And now, I’m very happy to keep scoring, helping the team to achieve their goals. But I’m feeling better as well. I’m playing better than I was in Europe.
Playing better than I was in Europe. Giovinco is 28 years old. This is his seventh season as a professional soccer player. He was one of the standout players of his generation as a young player: selected as the best player of the 2008 Toulon Tournament (players featuring in the youth soccer showcase that year included Claudio Marchisio, Keisuke Honda, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen) and named to the 2009 UEFA U21 Championship's Team of the Tournament. He has played UEFA Champions League and senior international soccer. He has played for some of the game's most respected coaches - Claudio Ranieri, Antonio Conte, Massimiliano Allegri - and alongside some great players (Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Gianluigi Buffon). He was once regarded as the natural heir to Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus.
But he fell short of those extremely high standards. He became expendable. He moved to Toronto FC. And now he thinks he's playing better than ever? That in itself is a mark of some confidence: he's not shy about asserting himself. What has changed? Well, he told The Guardian that part of it was simply being comfortable in a new environment:
The difference between Italy and here is that here we can enjoy time with family, time with friends. So after training, we can just go for a walk, we can go for an ice cream with the family, shopping, whatever. And when we do get stopped by fans, they are very respectful, and they are not so touchy and aggressive.
For his TFC head coach, Greg Vanney, it's a question of just giving Giovinco the time on the field to find his rhythm:
He plays every game for us, he plays 90 minutes. He was with Juventus, one of the best teams in the world. So perhaps he just needs consistency, stretches of games.
Comfortable off the pitch and given full support of his team to express himself on the field, Giovinco feels like he's in the best form of his life. He is confident.
Closer to home for RBNY fans, consider Mike Grella: he went from doing OK with NASL side Carolina RailHawks to this:
A player who cycled through eight clubs in seven seasons - unable to catch on anywhere, facing an early retirement from the game just this winter - is now making the exceptional his routine, and turning legends like Frank Lampard into props for his highlight reel
I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking what was going on in my career was a nightmare and I’d wake up the next day and it wasn’t. I was thinking this could not be happening. I knew I had so much talent but it was just not fermenting anywhere.
He came close to retiring from the game, but gave himself a chance to try-out for a MLS contract and won a place on RBNY's roster for 2015. As the season has progressed, he has got visibly better, more effective, to the point where he is now a core part of the first-choice starting line-up. The difference? As he told Heneage:
I just needed that run of games. Jesse has a great talent for extracting things from guys and giving them confidence. Everything I needed, Jesse and Ali [Curtis, Red Bulls Sporting Director] are the guys that have given that to me and relit the fire.
Later in the same piece, Heneage mentions Grella's father and Grella himself agree he is a "confidence player." Jesse Marsch is a manager who seems to have great ability to instill confidence in his players.
While Grella might be the main example of a player transformed by Marsch's man-management skills, he's not the only one. Players like Anthony Wallace, Felipe, even Matt Miazga show a lot of confidence on the pitch. Confidence is demonstrated by players being unafraid to do what they do best in a competitive setting. Think of Wallace's knack for scoring from distance:
Or Felipe's occasional flash of cheekiness with the ball (and, without quite the same success rate as Wallace, total conviction he can score from almost any open look at goal), or Miazga's rapid development into a starting-caliber center back.
Confidence is a hallmark of the players on the 2015 Red Bulls. In part, because the team has been winning. In part, I suspect, because Marsch encourages them to play to their strengths, even within the confines of fairly rigid tactical identity. The players are confident as a team because the team has confidence in its players.
I would say, then, that it's fair to expect something similar from Veron. He's not there yet, as he said to Dave Martinez in a recent interview for Empire of Soccer:
It’s not easy. I am in a different country, a different culture, a different life. It isn’t easy being alone here. But this team is a family and they try to make me feel the most comfortable possible.
The whole interview is basically about Veron's efforts to settle in, to get comfortable, to get confident. It will come, in due course.
And with the ability he has, he can become the best on the team - and, yes, the best player in the league. Right now, the biggest step is for him to actually get the ball when he plays. Seriously, watch Veron when he comes on the pitch: he is best with the ball at his feet, but it seems like the team ignores him when he's on the pitch. It may be because he doesn't make the inside runs that Grella makes, but either way, he doesn't seem to get many touches when he comes on.
He needs to earn a starting spot. As stated before, that's no easy task. The attacking front four is pretty much locked up, unless an injury or some other forced absence occurs.
Potentially luckily for Veron, however, is the absence of Dax McCarty from the upcoming game against the Portland Timbers after yellow card accumulation. Perhaps we will see Kljestan dropped deep, and, yes Gonzalo Veron starting, maybe as #10. Whether he fits Marsch's vision as a #10 is a different story, but everybody brace yourselves. You could be seeing the future best player in the league get his first ever start in MLS.