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The New York Red Bulls have too many center backs, and that's OK

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RBNY is panic-buying again, just like last season. And last season went pretty well.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It is a peculiar tendency of the current incarnation of the New York Red Bulls to get a little panicky over depth at a particular position on the roster, and swing rapidly from seeming to have too few of one type of player to having what looks a lot like too many. At least, that can be the appearance of some roster-building moves.

Last season, the club seemed to be overloading with left backs. With hindsight, once it became clear that neither Karl Ouimette nor Andrew Jean-Baptiste would be trusted as back-up for the position, it turned out to be just about the right number. Roy Miller's injury problems created opportunity for Kemar Lawrence; Lawrence's international commitments brought need for a third starter at the position - and Connor Lade eventually seemed to win the battle for that role.

Circumstances may have led RBNY to panic-buy Anthony Wallace less than two weeks after adding Lawrence to the roster, but that decision now looks mostly like an abundance of caution. The club didn't necessarily know what it was getting in Lawrence, or whether Lade would come good, and so it invested in yet another option.

And this season the roster has a more reasonable number of left backs: Lawrence is the clear starter; Lade is the go-to back-up and main challenger for Lawrence's starting spot; draft pick Justin Bilyeu won the contest to be the team's left-back-in-waiting and is being groomed for the position with starts for NYRB II; in a pinch, Sal Zizzo could switch sides or one of the center backs could slide over.

The new trouble-spot on the roster is center back. Big Apple Soccer's Kristian Dyer reports the club might have five starting-caliber CBs fit and ready to play by the beginning of June: Gideon Baah, Aurelien Collin, Karl Ouimette, Damien Perrinelle, and Ronald Zubar. And it also has rookie Zach Carroll hoping to prove himself through work on loan to NYRB II; and Bilyeu is also capable of playing a central role; and right back Chris Duvall is one half of the only RBNY center back pairing to preside over a clean sheet so far this season.

Five starters and three back-ups is a lot, even for a position that traditionally needs two players to fill it every game.

If last year's traffic jam at left back was brought about by caution, the current pile-up of CBs may have been precipitated by simple misfortune. The RBNY plan for CB seemed fairly clear at the start of the season: the team would work with Baah, Zubar, and Ouimette until the return of Damien Perrinelle. Two clear starters for the first two or three months of the year (when there is really only one competition to worry about), one player who might conceivably win himself the start (Ouimette), and a tried-and-tested starter (Perrinelle) likely to return from injury just around the time US Open Cup, CCL, and summer internationals tested the depth of the roster.

The club drafted itself a couple of young CB prospects as well (Caroll and Bilyeu) - adding to future options as the season progresses.

Of course, any team must have a plan for injuries. The group above might have coped with a knock to one of the starters, but it wasn't constructed to deal with injury to both starting center backs in the same game; and that game was just the third of the year. Suddenly, there was a crisis at CB: no Baah, no Zubar, no Perrinelle; just Ouimette and a couple of rookies to consider. Depth issues were exposed when Kemar Lawrence turned out to be RBNY's fourth-choice central defender on the match-fit roster.

If two injuries at center back force you to reach for your starting left back to fill the void, you have probably do need more depth at the position. And when that left back also gets injured, you really have problems.

Still, the timing of the arrival of RBNY's fifth potential starting center back, Aurelien Collin, is a little odd: things seem to be just starting to settle down. The team needed another CB about a month ago, not so much now. But one can understand Ali Curtis not being willing to be caught by the same extraordinary coincidence of misfortune twice in one season. If two CBs go down in the same game again, the roster is ready for it.

Call it a near-certainty that all five of the current crop of senior RBNY CBs aren't back for next season. It wouldn't be surprising if one departs before the end of the summer. But for now, the Red Bulls have turned out of a crisis into an abundance of riches at the center back position. In principle, there are now more than enough seasoned CB candidates to fill strong starting lineups for MLS, USOC and CCL.

And if a roster is built in a way that wins the club a trophy, then it is the right roster.

If RBNY reaches June with five starting center backs and three prospects (we're counting Duvall as a CB prospect for the moment) on the roster, that is too many center backs.  But if the squad exits this season with a trophy, then it was the right squad. Over-reacting to positional needs does seem to be a tendency of the current RBNY leadership, but if that tendency is part of a tendency to win trophies then it cannot be faulted.