As the New York Red Bulls enter the heat of the summer and the heart of the season they are struggling. Struggling with schedule congestion, struggling with some injuries, and mainly struggling to pick up points.
This, in turn, begs the question, what needs to change? What needs to happen to get back to the domination of the New York Red Bulls of yesteryear?
In truth, not much. The defense needs to get healthy and become a little more cohesive in the process, a combination of Lloyd Sam, Gonzalo Veron, and Alex Muyl need to become an efficient winger, and the tandem of Dax McCarty and Felipe needs to get a little rest and get their legs under them. A little work, a little rest, and the end of a little slump should see New York right back where they were last year in terms of ability.
But should the RBNY improve on what it has? How can the club set itself up for future success? How can it set itself up for the next five years, the next ten?
That answer is simple. Play Sean Davis.
Who is Sean Davis? He is a 23 year-old midfielder out of Holmdel, New Jersey. He landed at RBNY as a Homegrown player after a short stop at Duke University. Though not exactly a speedster, he is agile, quick on his feet and even quicker with his mind. He reads the game exceptionally well, he is positionally sound, and he is a very, very good passer of the ball. Be it at five yards or fifty, Davis can hit the target consistently.
On top of all of this, he knows what to do with a dead ball.
He is a two-year captain of the Duke Blue Devils, he is a student of the game, and he is more than capable of starting in MLS - indeed, he is more than capable of being very successful in this league.
At 23, it is unlikely Sean Davis will improve leaps and bounds and be lighting up the English Premier League in three or four years, but that is not to say he does not have room to grow. He is likely to continue to improve over the next three, four, five years, offering a rare case of a player that grows along with MLS instead of being overgrown by the league's advances or outgrowing it entirely. His own coach and teammates have said he would start at the majority of teams in Major League Soccer, so why isn't he starting in New York?
Since his debut in April 2015, Sean Davis has appeared in 28 games in all competitions for the New York Red Bulls, starting only 10 of them. In MLS games (he's played 24 and started seven), his average time on the field per appearance is 32 minutes and 12 seconds. If he was to play, on average, 70 minutes per start - not an unreasonable number, probably actually a little low - that would mean his substitute appearances average out to approximately 16 minutes and 40 seconds. To date, he has mostly been restricted to cameo performances, time-wasting substitute appearances, and the occasional opportunity to humiliate Chelsea.
Given time, he will shine, but he hasn't been getting a lot of time in MLS.
When actually given the chance to play something closer to a full game than his typical 15-minutes-or-less appearances, Davis has impressed. In USL, despite the dynamism and power of Speedy Williams and Dan Metzger, any time Sean Davis steps on the field for NYRBII he is clearly the best player. He led a midfield of children in that rout of Chelsea last summer, ran the group, and looked damn good doing so. Again: why isn't he starting in New York?
The biggest reason is that he is stuck behind the strongest central midfield trio in Major League Soccer. That may well be true, but Davis could make it better.
Of the three, Davis is perhaps physically and technically closest to Sacha Kljestan. But RBNY's central attacking playmaker has a chemistry with the team's other starting attacking players that it would be reckless to tinker with simply to get Davis on the field more often. Right now, the obvious place for him is policing the middle of the park in more of a two-way role.
Currently, RBNY relies on captain Dax McCarty and Felipe Martins in central midfield. Felipe is a metronome, a pest, and prone to the occasional wonder goal. He is also prone to getting caught flat footed, being a one-note player, not providing much play going forward, and many, many stray shots from distance. Dax McCarty is a bulldog in the midfield, positionally adept, fiery, and a solid defensive shield despite the perception his size would give. These two men work well in tandem. Their ferocious attitudes complement their playing style and the counter pressing system of the team. However, Sean Davis could improve on it.
One cannot argue he should replace Dax, at least not in the current system. They are simply too different stylistically as players. However, Felipe is another matter. Davis provides the same ferocious attitude off the ball as Mr. Martins, he is more than adept as a #6 in terms of defensive responsibilities, he is more agile than the Brazilian, he is arguably the among the best passers on the team, and certainly provides a broader range of passing than Felipe's metronomic efforts. Between that greater passing range, Davis' shooting ability, his crossing ability, and his skill from dead-ball would immediately give New York a more dynamic midfield going forward. Felipe can take a good free kick and used to be RBNY's primary set-piece taker until Kljestan proved more efficient and effective. Davis could be the guy who takes over that responsibility from Kljestan in due course.
The argument that the midfield duo of Dax and Felipe is simply too good to split up doesn't hold water anymore. One should always look to improve, whether at the top of the hill or the bottom. When one is firmly average, then one should certainly be looking to all areas for improvement. The New York Red Bulls are not the dominant force of last year. They sit in fourth place in an exceptionally average Eastern Conference. To say they should not rock the boat in an attempt to improve is laughable. The boat has holes in it, quite a few; rocking it a little might shift the ballast a little and steady it, it certainly will not make it sink any quicker.
Sean Davis could be a legend for the New York Red Bulls. He is young, he is good enough to play for a strong team with plenty of room to grow, but he's unlikely to outgrow the team or the league that he currently plays in. Sean Davis could have 10, even 15 years as a New York Red Bull ahead of him. That would one of the all-time great RBNY careers; one of the all-time great MLS careers. But, if that's going to happen, first he has to play.
He's ready, and the team needs some new ideas. So why not Sean Davis? Why not now?