At the start of the season the New York Red Bulls encountered a health crisis in defense. Already without Damien Perrinelle until at least midseason as he continues to rehab a knee injury, they would lose their opening day center back pairing (Gideon Baah and Ronald Zubar) for a lengthy time due to hamstring injuries. Forced to shuffle the deck, head coach Jesse Marsch had to rely on Karl Quimette, a sub who's made frequent appearances for New York’s USL team, and a rotating cast of outside backs forced into emergency duty in the center of the backline; Kemar Lawrence, Chris Duvall and Connor Lade.
With the uncertain health and the team leaking goals, Ali Curtis pulled the trigger on a trade for Orlando City defender Aurélien Collin. The 30-year-old Frenchman was brought in to shore up a defense that was giving up 2.14 goals per game resulting in a 1-6 record.
Once a MLS stalwart with Sporting Kansas City and Orlando, the fashion-conscious and Instagram star found himself being phased out of Adrian Heath’s lineup this season and Curtis took a buy-low chance that the 2013 MLS Cup MVP could regain the form that had made him one of the best center backs during his time in MLS.
Following two games which the Red Bulls incidentally won, the MLS Cup winner with SKC would make his first appearance and start in a New York shirt back in Central Florida against the very OCSC team he was traded from. Since his introduction, Collin has started each of the last five Red Bulls games and they have had their best run of defensive form of the season. In five consecutive games with Collin anchoring the backline, RBNY have gone 3-1-1 while only giving up 0.6 goals per game. The scoring exploits of Bradley Wright-Phillips and the midfield mastery of Sacha Kljestan have grabbed the headlines, but it’s been Collin’s presence that has helped turn a shaky defense into a strength including registering three-straight shutout victories.
When RBNY acquired Collin, they may have been looking for was a MLS-quality starting center back but what they got was someone who has been playing at a MLS Best XI-level.
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Collin’s addition has been transformative for the New York defense. During their early struggles, teams were conceding possession to RBNY and would quickly strike on the counter. Despite the Red Bulls dominating the possession numbers, getting caught on the counter and individual defensive mistakes would be their downfall due to the quality of chances they would give up. New York’s opponents are seeing more of the ball lately but the Red Bulls are limiting the quality of their looks. So, while RBNY's opponents are attempting more total shots per game than pre-Collin, the number of shots on goal has decreased and the goals conceded has gone down from 1.89 per game to only 0.6.
Those numbers would be even more impressive if it were not for the second half last Saturday against Toronto FC where New York played the entire second half down a man due to Gonzalo Veron’s first half red card. With a 3-0 lead at home, RBNY conceded loads of possession and allowed TFC to take 14 shots with six on target including a 48th-minute penalty which was saved by Luis Robles. Despite that, the Collin-led back line still pitched a shutout; it’s their third-straight on the trot. An impressive stretch that has seen them keep David Accam, Kennedy Igboananike, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco off the score sheet.
RBNY’s defensive transformation has seen them rise the WhoScored.com defensive rankings to fourth and Collin has been the catalyst. Grading out as New York’s best player thus far this season, Collin's play in his five appearances has even surpassed the play of Sacha Kljestan who has been among the best midfielders in MLS in 2016.
Not only has Collin’s play been exemplary, the gulf in quality and consistency between the level the French defender has exhibited is a good leap from the performances New York’s rotating cast of center backs.
The original plan for the 2016 season called for Zubar and new-signing Baah to anchor the defense until the return of Perrinelle, who was one of the best center backs in MLS in 2015, in mid-summer. Unfortunately for the Red Bulls, injuries started piling up. Karl Quimette, who has proven himself as a quality sub and replacement player, was forced to become New York’s most relied upon center back. Quimette has shown well in short bursts during his time in MLS, but has found himself exposed the more consistent his playing time is. Not only has Collin’s arrival in Harrison provided consistency in New York’s backline, his level of play has been extraordinarily high.
Averaging over two clearances per game more than any other New York player, Collin leads the Red Bulls in interceptions with 4.8 per game. Quimette (4) and Lawrence (3.5) are the only others to average over 3 in multiple appearances for the team in 2016.
The full point upgrade from Quimette, who had been RBNY’s most consistent center back, has been a major key in the turnaround to the New York Red Bulls’ season. When Curtis pulled the trigger on the trade, he hoped that Collin would help patch up a unit that was leaking confidence and goals. Not only has the Frenchman done that, he’s helped turn the defense into a strength for RBNY as they have been one of the hottest teams in MLS over the last month.