There have been a few key contributors to the New York Red Bull's success this season: Bradley Wright-Phillips, the league leader in goals; Sacha Kljestan, the league leader in assists; Luis Robles, the league leader in shutouts. All three of those players have seen their contributions acknowledged in the league's end-of-season awards shortlists.
But the turning point of RBNY's year - which had once seemed destined to be a bust, or at best a struggle to be adequate - was arguably the acquisition of Aurelien Collin.
The Red Bulls picked up Collin in late April. They only lost a conditional fourth round pick when they acquired him from Orlando City SC. The 30-year-old had established himself as a high-level player in MLS at Sporting Kansas City, winning US Open Cup and a league Best XI selection in 2012, and snagging the MLS Cup MVP award when KC lifted the trophy in 2013. But he had fallen out of favor at Orlando City, and was shuffled out to RBNY for almost nothing.
Collin’s arrival came at a perfect time for the Red Bulls. Early on in the season, they had struggled to replace center back Matt Miazga. They were leaking goals and they needed help.
Collin landed at RBNY with his best days seemingly well behind him. A regular for an unconvincing Orlando side in 2015, he had seen the field twice for OCSC in MLS 2016 - and started only once. But the Red Bulls won just three of the first nine games. They also allowed an astonishing 1.9 goals against. Grabbing an experienced-but-underused defender for the league's equivalent of spare change seemed to illustrate RBNY's desperation at the time: do something, do it quickly, and hope it works.
It worked. Collin immediately broke into the starting lineup, mostly because the back line had been decimated by injury. In his first five games, the Red Bulls saw a huge difference in their form: they outscored their opponents 12-3, winning three games (as many as they had won all season prior to Collin's arrival).
In MLS, he has made 24 appearances for RBNY, so far: 23 in the regular season and one in the playoffs. The Red Bulls have conceded 28 goals in those games: 1.17 goals per game. The solidity Collin has brought to the back line is well illustrated by the difference between 1.9 and 1.17. The success the team has enjoyed - winning the Eastern Conference in the regular season and qualifying for the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals (Collin played in all four of RBNY's group stage games) - has been built on the restoration of its ability to defend its own net.
Whatever happens to RBNY in the playoffs, Collin's acquisition must be thanked for getting a team that looked to have lost its way back on track. A season that had seemed over almost as soon as it started was turned around by the arrival of a defender whose best days looked to be behind him. Obituaries for the MLS career of Aurelien Collin and the 2016 season of RBNY both proved premature. Player and club have bounced back from a troubling start to the year, and that start now looks no more than a blip in their respective histories.
Whatever happens to RBNY in the playoffs: thank you, Aurelien.