When Gonzalo Veron completed his transfer to the New York Red Bulls, I was very excited to see him play. After watching many highlight videos, I was convinced that Veron would be the star player for the Bulls. I even expected him to become an MVP winner, eventually putting up Giovinco-esque numbers.
To date, however, that hasn't happened. Veron has yet to fully showcase his skills for RBNY. He joined the team at the beginning of August, 2015. In the build-up to his transfer, the club let it be known Ali Curtis had visited South America "several times", implying an active and methodical scouting effort. And this was re-iterated by Curtis himself in an interview with Once A Metro last September. When Veron's signing was announced, Curtis described a versatile, experienced player who could take any role in the Red Bulls' attacking quartet:
He has played for one of the top teams in South America and has shown he can play any of the front four positions. Not only are we getting a player who can help us immediately, he is someone who fits well into our long-term plans for our club.
More than a year since he joined the club, however, his numbers are nowhere near what was expected. Heading into the second playoff campaign of his tenure with RBNY, he has made 46 appearances in all competitions for the first team - which is pretty good for just shy of 15 months with the club. But only 13 of those appearances have been starts.
Often, when a DP doesn't perform in MLS, it's just because they're not a good player, period. With Veron, it's a different case. Veron has the talent to perform in MLS, and he proves it every now and again during the off-the-bench cameos that have become his signature appearance for RBNY.
Veron's problem at RBNY has been less a lack of demonstrated ability on the pitch and more a lack of time on the pitch to demonstrate his ability. A good majority of his appearances are 10-minute cameos, with the very occasional 60-75 minute game, usually in the Open Cup or CCL. He hasn't been given nearly enough time to make the scoring impact expected of him: in his entire RBNY career, he's totaled 1,466 minutes in all competitions. In MLS regular season games, he's made 36 appearances but only eight starts, and logged fewer than 1,000 minutes.
He has four goals and four assists in all competitions for RBNY, which isn't a lot when you consider he has played in almost 50 matches. But it is a respectable return from 1,466 minutes: it's close to a goal or assist every other game, if you consider he has spent the equivalent time of just over 16 complete matches on the pitch for the Red Bulls. In league games, his four goals from 952 minutes is not bad at all: on pace for somewhere in the region of a 14-goal season if it held over a full 34 matches.
There are reasons for his paltry playing time. When Veron landed at RBNY, he joined team with a settled front four. Sacha Kljestan had established himself as critical to the Red Bulls' set-piece work; Bradley Wright-Phillips was the star striker; Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella were on fire. It was understandable why Veron wasn't thrust into the lineup immediately: the team didn't really need an attacking starter, and it could have severely damaged morale and chemistry in the squad to jettison one of the established players in mid-season for no better reason than a new guy had turned up.
Nonetheless, I expected Veron to get time in the playoffs. He did get a few short games, which included setting up BWP beautifully to seal the deal against DC, and almost single-handedly dragging the Red Bulls to victory against Columbus in the second leg at Red Bull Arena. RBNY lost the playoff series to the Crew on aggregate that night, but there was a lot to look forward to from Veron for next season.
RBNY thought so too. In the 2016 preseason, the Red Bulls worked hard at converting to a 4-2-2-2, which featured Veron and BWP spearheading the attack. It seemed very promising: BWP scored seven in the first five preseason games; Veron finished off the preseason schedule with a hat-trick against Jacksonville Armada.
But a late injury kept Veron from starting the season as the starter he had been groomed to be and, to make matters worse, he was injured again when he returned to play Houston in RBNY's third match of the regular season. With so much attacking talent, the Red Bulls- and especially Veron and BWP- tore it up during preseason.
Despite these injuries, I still had a lot of hope in Veron. He proved his abilities during preseason, and surely would be able to break into the team once he was 100%. But management had other plans, however. With Veron injured, the 4-2-2-2 that had looked good in preseason didn't seem to work at all. The team reverted back to the classic 4-2-3-1 that served them so well last year. Gradually, as the Red Bulls turned around a bad start and found the sort of momentum necessary to challenge for a trophy, it was Alex Muyl who broke through to take a starting place in the front four. Lloyd Sam was let go, and a new potential starter for next season - Daniel Royer - was acquired to keep pressure on the squad to maintain performance levels.
Veron was back where he had started with RBNY: watching a settled attacking quartet lead the team on a hot streak, while he was asked to offer brief end-of-games cameos to the cause.
Veron brings a lot to the table for the Red Bulls. He's quick, not only in the first five yards, but over long distance as well. He is exceptional with the ball at his feet, whether it's running at defenders or putting the ball into space for BWP to finish; again, this is something we saw him do against DC in the playoffs last season. His finishing may seem iffy, but most of the time he's denied due to an exceptional save, not because of a fluffed shot. Many will argue that Alex Muyl is more capable defensively, but Veron tracks back and presses defenders just as much.
The upcoming playoffs seem to be Veron's do-or-die moment with RBNY. If he can get the playing time he needs, then he has the potential to lift the team beyond its current level - and its current level is among the elite attacking teams in MLS. If he doesn't get the time, it's unlikely he'll deliver the performances required to continue to justify his presence near the top of RBNY's payroll.
There is a fairly good chance the Red Bulls still harbor dreams of running a 4-2-2-2. It is the formation-of-choice within Red Bull Global Soccer at the moment, and a concerted effort was made to transition to the RB family plan earlier this year. The formation heavily suits Veron's strengths; indeed, one suspects his acquisition was made more for the pending switch in tactics than for anything he was expected to contribute in 2015.
Unfortunately for Veron, the Red Bulls had a long enough look at 4-2-2-2 in MLS to realize (hopefully) that the problem was less the lack of an attacking player with Veron-like gifts and more the absence of center backs capable of performing to the requirements of the system. The 4-2-2-2 requires full backs to be much more attacking to provide width to a narrow structure - and that leaves the flanks open for the counter, requiring center backs to cover a lot of ground and make their tackles count. It is a weakness in the overall RB Soccer system in general, but it is exacerbated in a 4-2-2-2 without the right center backs.
Maybe the Red Bulls go back to the 4-2-2-2 in preseason. For now, however, the old-favorite 4-2-3-1 - with wingers providing a lot of two-way support - has taken RBNY back to top form and it would be reckless to change tactics for the playoffs.
As Ali Curtis said when Veron was signed, however, the Argentine can play pretty much anywhere in the front four - and he can and has performed well in the 4-2-3-1. What matters is not where he plays or in what formation. What matters is that he plays, and plays more than the 68 minutes he got in last year's post-season. If this playoff campaign is to be his last chance, he needs to given that chance. Anything less is a shameful retreat from the promises implied by his contract and the work that went into signing him.