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Could do better: why the best team in USL has plenty of room for improvement

Two years into its existence, NYRB II is the best team in USL, but still has work to do to fulfill its primary purpose.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at San Jose Earthquakes Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, New York Red Bulls II took their league by storm. The team won the USL regular season in dominating, record-setting style, and brushed aside Swope Park Rangers, 5-1, in the Championship game to take home USL Cup. The achievement was made all the more impressive for the fact NYRB II has only existed for two seasons.

For its work on the field in 2016, NYRB II has to get an A. Hell, it has to get an A+. It won USL in a more dominant fashion than any team had won USL before (more or less). NYRB II is a fantastic soccer team.

Well, it was a fantastic soccer team. NYRB II’s response to one of the best years any USL team has ever had was to empty its roster. Seven players were allowed to exit the squad back in November, leaving the team with a roster of six contracted players (We’re expecting Rafael Diaz back soon, so call it six-going-on-seven as of January 22). And three of the men still under contract to NYRB II - Vincent Bezecourt, Florian Valot, and Junior Flemmings - have been promised a chance to compete for a spot on RBNY’s MLS roster during the 2017 preseason. A fourth, Aaron Long, made the jump into the MLS squad last year, and is more or less expected to be a member of the first team in 2017.

Why take apart an A+ team, one of the best team’s in USL history? Because winning in USL is only the short-term objective of NYRB II. Every year, yes, the team will do its best to win its league championship. But every year it seems we can expect to see a quite different team from the year before, because the big-picture purpose of USL’s NYRB II is to develop players for RBNY in MLS. And every year - at least, every one of the two years it has existed - the II team dissolves itself and reassembles around a new group of players considered to have the potential to contribute to the Red Bulls’ MLS future.

In that regard - as a development squad - NYRB II is not quite matching the standard it reached on the field in 2016. An A+ USL team it might well have been last year, but as a vehicle for player development, it’s hard to give the II team more than a B-.

That is not a slight on the II team’s coaching staff, nor its players, nor even the fact it exists at all. It is a grade awarded to the overall outcome of the II team’s apparent player development strategy to date.

That strategy is understood to have NYRB II positioned as the bridge between all of RBNY’s various future-talent options and the first team. The reserves play more or less the same style as the MLS iteration of the Red Bulls. Tactical consistency means first-teamers who need minutes for fitness or sharpness can drop down for a game or two in USL, and up-and-coming players are showing what they can contribute to the RB system every week in reserve team games. That part makes a lot of sense.

The part of the strategy where the II team seems to be falling down is the type of players it targets and signs, and more importantly, what happens to those players once they make it into the USL squad.

There are five basic categories of player that NYRB II draws from to make up its squad: junior MLS-ers loaned down for pro experience; senior MLS-ers loaned down for (mostly) rehab starts; second-chance pros released or overlooked by other teams; RBNY Academy prospects who play as on-loan amateurs; true-blue (or perhaps “red”) U-21 prospects signed to pro contracts to the II team.

For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll ignore the first two categories. The senior guys rehabbing with the II team come and go throughout the season and are of little relevance to the overall development objectives of the club. The juniors loaned down from MLS to the USL team are almost a different subject - and one OaM has already offered a view about.

This analysis is concerned with the other three types of player: the second-chancers, the Academy kids, and the true prospects.

To start with the biggest group: the second-chancers, players released from other pro teams or college grads who went undrafted or unsigned. NYRB II appears to have a de facto age cut-off: with very few exceptions (Ryan Meara, basically), you won’t find a regular II-teamer over the age of 25. The second-chancers therefore are younger players - usually between 21 and 25 - who haven’t quite made the grade in their first effort at a pro career.

From the second-chancers, RBNY not only gets a close look at under-rated or under-valued talent, but it also gets a group of pro-experienced or at least older players on the roster.

In practice, the second-chancers make up the majority of the team’s pro roster, with very few moving up to the first team. In 2015, NYRB II had 15 players on USL contracts, 14 of them fit the second-chancer definition. For 2016, only five of those 14 players were retained on USL contracts. For the 2016 season, the team ultimately accumulated 14 players on USL contracts: 11 were recent college graduates or had been released from another team. In 2017, six (probably seven with Diaz due to come aboard soon) have been retained for the upcoming season - and one of them we’d classify as a “true prospect” rather than a second-chancer (Junior Flemmings).

That is a lot of players being cycled through every year for little obvious return from a development perspective. The Red Bulls’ catch-and-release program has yielded one second-chancer to date who has forced his way into the reckoning for first team minutes: Aaron Long. Currently, he is the exception, not the rule. The 2017 preseason will tell us whether any others (e.g. Bezecourt, Valot, Diaz) make a similar step forward.

So far, NYRB II’s second-chance program hasn’t been a particularly productive source of talent for RBNY. It has become a proven pathway for players to force their way back into the US pro soccer market: Mike da Fonte, Chris Tsonis, and Jamie Harris parlayed a season with NYRB II into USL contracts with other teams for the following year; Zach Carroll and Devon Williams have been scooped up to play elsewhere in USL after being released by the II team at the end of 2016.

Maybe the point of this sort of signing isn’t so much to find overlooked diamonds in the rough, but rather to set a baseline standard for younger players to meet or exceed on their path from prospect to pro.

If that is the case, however, one would hope to see more prospects coming through and nudging the second-chancers out of the way as they power toward careers in MLS. But that hasn’t really been happening to date.

Not for want of trying perhaps: in two seasons, NYRB II has seen 16 Academy prospects take the field as on-loan amateurs to the professional USL team. That’s a positive. Prior to NYRB II, the Red Bulls did often pitch Academy prospects into reserve team games, but now the club can offer a better structure for those experiences (USL is a fully-fledged league with its own momentum and priorities; the old MLS reserve league seemed to be little more than a series of training games few wanted to watch or play). And, in theory, the club can also perhaps start to identify pro-ready talent at a younger age, and get those players under contract before college or other teams turn their heads.

Of the 16 on-loan Academy players NYRB II has handed USL minutes, there is one success story for RBNY: Derrick Etienne.

Before fulfilling his commitment to play college soccer for the University of Virginia, Etienne got some time with NYRB II in 2015. It was a head-turning cameo. Though he did move on to college as intended, by December 2015 the Red Bulls had coaxed Etienne back to pro soccer with a MLS Homegrown Player contract. Instead of a prospect who might have been signed or drafted as a 23-year-old in 2020, RBNY has a 20-year-old on its books who has already made significant, competitive men’s national appearances for Haiti. Well done, NYRB II.

But Etienne, so far, is the only one of 16 Academy loanees to the II team who has been converted to a pro contract with RBNY. This is problematic because this should be the II team’s sweet spot.

The Academy is not short of pro-ready players. Not every one will want to skip or curtail a college career. Not every one will want to sign with RBNY. And RBNY won’t necessarily spot the potential of every single player that passes through its Academy. But the loan-to-USL route ought to help catch and correct some of these inefficiencies in the Academy system; it ought to divert a few players to RBNY who otherwise might have slipped away to other opportunities. It has, so far, delivered one out of 16 players. Could do better.

Overall, the target for NYRB II signings should be closer to the 17-19 range coming out the Academy than the 22-24 range coming out of college. Nothing wrong with treating the reserves as an U-25 team, but that should be in the context of players having three or four seasons to mature and develop and force their way into the first team. Currently, it’s more like one or two years in USL and then move up or move on - which it pretty much has to be, since the II team is mostly churning through batches of 23-year-olds, not teenagers.

We know the teenage talent is in the Red Bulls system: thanks to NYRB II, we’ve seen it. Quite a lot of it, in fact.

2015 NYRB Academy Players in USL

Player Destination the following year
Player Destination the following year
Marcello Borges Michigan (NCAA)
Mason Deeds NYRB U18 (USSDA)
Derrick Etienne Virginia (NCAA)/RBNY (MLS)
Ethan Lochner Georgetown (NCAA)
Henry Martin Princeton (NCAA)
Brian Saramago NYRB U18 (USSDA)
Juan Sebastian Sanchez Tulsa (NCAA)
Kyle Zajac Georgetown (NCAA)

2016 Academy Players in USL

Player Destination the following year
Player Destination the following year
Mason Deeds Georgetown (NCAA)
Omir Fernandez NYRB U18 (USSDA)/Wake Forest (NCAA)
Chris Gloster US U17 Residency Program
Ben Mines NYRB U18 (USSDA)
Ryan Mingachos George Mason (NCAA)
Kevin O'Toole NYRB U18 (USSDA)/Princeton (NCAA)
Noah Powder To be determind
Brian Saramago Loyola Maryland (NCAA)
Kazu Shigenobu NYRB U18 (USSDA)
Sean Teixeira Villanova (NCAA)

The problem is not the Academy. The Academy players who get a chance in USL tend to look very comfortable. Incredibly so, when one considers they are often 16 or 17 and playing against opponents up to a decade older than themselves. You think about what a guy who looks OK in USL at 17 could be with four or five years of consistent, challenging, pro soccer under his belt - you start to think some very happy thoughts about RBNY’s future.

Just this past season, the Academy seemed to be compulsively throwing full backs at NYRB II. Noah Powder was thought to be one of the premier prospects in the RBNY pipeline at the start of the season; over the course of the year, Kevin O’Toole started to find time on the field in USL also. The two Academy full backs logged 1051 and 570 minutes respectively with NYRB II in the regular season. A third, Chris Gloster, is currently in the US Youth National Team residency program, also looked to be an equally competent USL player in his one, 87 minute, appearance with the team.

The problem is the feeling that the NYRB II experience isn’t helping to divert these players RBNY’s way. In part, that may be because they aren’t necessarily getting a lot of NYRB II experience. The large majority of Academy players are used as stopgaps and late-game subs by the II team. They get three or four appearances and then head off to college at the end of the season.

Maybe these players will come out on the other side as great soccer players ready to play professionally, maybe they will not. Either way, once they are in college, their development is almost entirely out of New York’s control. Etienne aside, a stint with the second team doesn’t appear to have much changed the preferred path of RBNY Academy prospects. Mason Deeds and Brian Saramago went to Georgetown and Loyola respectively despite getting time with NYRB II for two years. Kevin O’Toole seems unlikely to give up his future Princeton education for a USL contract. Noah Powder’s future is cloudy at best: he is not linked to a college program, but is rumored to have been exploring club options in France.

The Red Bulls clearly have access to young talent. They are clearly willing to play that talent at a pro level - though perhaps not as much as one might hope. But the club seems to be either unwilling or unable to punch its efforts up a notch and aggressively sign U-20 talent to pro terms. There isn’t really a pipeline from the Academy to NYRB II to RBNY at the moment. The Red Bulls’ development pipeline still flows first and foremost to college, and that means the club is still getting the bulk of its young talent in its early 20s, rather than late teens.

Meanwhile, there are MLS teams that have been more aggressive in this regard. Teams like LA, Toronto, Vancouver, and Kansas City have found more success with using USL to create a younger pool of pro talent to potentially feed their first team. At least one has even engineered a creative solution to the traditional college vs pros debate. LA Galaxy II’s partnership with California State University, Dominguez Hills, might be the example for NYRB II to follow now it too will be playing on a college campus. An agreement between Montclair State and the Red Bulls wouldn’t be a perfect solution, but it would show an interest at least in finding new ways to get younger players on pro contracts. Because whatever the reasons for it, currently NYRB II is not bridging the gap between the Academy and the first team so much as highlighting it: we see the young players emerge from the youth system for a few games in USL, and then we hope to see them again once they have got their degrees. It’s a few long years in between.

Too many U-25 second-chancers, not enough U-20 pros signed from the Academy: what of the third category - the “true prospects”?

Almost by definition, these are the hardest players to get signed to USL terms. These are the pro-ready teenagers any club would be interested in signing. The poster-boy for this class of player at NYRB II is Tyler Adams. He’s an Academy graduate, so he first the last group discussed also, but he’s arguably in a more elite group than the average Academy grad. A highly-rated youth international prospect, RBNY did the smart thing and got him signed to NYRB II terms in 2015 - when he was just 16. He was still 16 when he signed for the first team, in December, 2015. He spent 2016 mostly with NYRB II, but he should be getting more first team looks in 2017.

Adams’ career to date is an example of what RBNY can do with a policy of aggressively signing young, pro-caliber talent. He’s also an outlier.

You might think teenage pros would be a focus for a development squad. You would think wrong. In two years, NYRB II has had four U-20 pros on its roster (as opposed to loaned up as amateurs from the Academy, or loaned down from the MLS team). Adams, Junior Flemmings, Zoumana Simpara, and Cheikh M’Baye. That is it.

Both Adams and Flemmings look to be very promising talents but both Simpara and M’Baye have left the club without making much of an impact at all. Simpara has gone as far as to publicly criticize the team after his departure. M’Baye signed with NYRB II in April, 2016, and was let go in July (the day after his 21st birthday, as it happens).

Young players leaving the club is certainly not ideal, but it is a reality of the player development process. Some players just will not be good enough to crack New York’s MLS lineup or even the USL team. Development is a numbers game. However, when the team has only signed four of U-20 players over two years, it’s not a great sign that it only has a 50% retention rate. Either increase the number of young players signed to professional contracts significantly, or do a better job of hanging on to the scant few the team decides to invest in. (Or both. Both never hurts.)

Having a second team in the USL is a significant investment for MLS teams. Why not commit to the project and make that investment worthwhile at least? At the moment, the New York Red Bulls don’t look fully committed. The bulk of their USL signings are second-chance pros or undrafted college prospects; the Academy pipeline still flows mostly to college; the team hasn’t shown great luck or judgement with U-20 talents it can nurture through USL to MLS.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The above picture is of the 2011/2012 New York Red Bulls U16 team. In the photo are several current professional players (Matt Miazga, Alex Muyl, Ismar Tandir, and Amando Moreno) and three players rumored to be nearing their first professional contract (Evan Louro, Adam Najem, and Arun Basuljevic). Also on that team were current Red Bulls Homegrown and NYRB II spark-plug Derrick Etienne, DI soccer stars Kevin Politz, Chris Lema, and Malcolm Dixon, and one-time Reading F.C. goalkeeper Aleks Gogic. Six players on that team have already played professional soccer; another three to six are likely to in the coming year or two. From one Academy team, there could ultimately be as many as 12 pro players.

The talent is there in the Academy. Right now, unfortunately, it looks like RBNY is squandering its resources. NYRB II was founded to start to address that issue, but presently the failure to really focus in on professionalizing younger players seems almost irresponsible. Continued over time, the current missing-the-mark player acquisition strategy at the II team will be damaging to the club and its goals. The New York Red Bulls sit on top of one of the great American soccer hotbeds. But the advantage of being a pro team in a well-established youth soccer area like New York/New Jersey is not being fully exploited.

Is there an alternative? Yes, there is. Other MLS teams are finding ways to get more, younger, academy-developed players on to their rosters. Clubs both with and without USL reserve sides are figuring out how to keep their prospects in the system, in a professional environment, thereby retaining control over those players’ development. The LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps: all follow this practice.

FC Dallas currently has five homegrown players on its roster under the age of 20 (and another three who are 23 and younger). This is a club without a reserve team in USL team to stash its academy talent in. FCD is at a distinct disadvantage to teams like New York, and yet it is outperforming its seemingly better-resourced MLS rival in the player development arena.

FCD faces much the same problems as any other team with a good academy. It lost its top prospect, Weston McKennie, back in August to Schalke in Germany. The response was to get a lot more proactive in signing promising academy talent before those players could leave to go abroad. Since losing McKennie, FCD has signed four new Homegrown players. The culture of developing and giving youth a chance that Dallas has created allows them to entice their academy talent to sign professional deals. RBNY is still recovering from the days when former head coah Hans Backe was accused of treating young, Homegrown players as “traffic cones” in practice.

In contrast to Dallas, New York officially lost their top academy prospect, Matthew Olosunde, in March to Manchester United, though he was gone a long time before that. Did New York react in a similarly proactive way as FC Dallas? Not so much. Between March 2016 and January 2017, RBNY lost another one abroad (Wojciech Gajda) but didn’t sign any Academy players to MLS or USL deals. New, young players are surely incoming in 2017, but there is no particular sign that RBNY has got any better at persuading Academy prospects to pick a pro future with Red Bull than elsewhere. Indeed, one of the top-rated Homegrown prospects in the pipeline at the moment - Adam Najem - has long been courted by RBNY but was rumored to have been reduced to a trade chip over the off-season.

Since 2013, the New York Red Bulls have had eight Academy players choose to sign abroad instead of staying with New York.

New York Red Bulls Academy Players to Sign Abroad

Player Team (Country)
Player Team (Country)
Russel Canouse TSG Hoffenheim (Germany)
Kyle Duncan Valenciennes F.C. (France)
Aleks Gogic Reading F.C. (England)
Wojceich Gadja Hearts (Scotland)
Kyle Gruno Leicester City (England)
Noah Leeds Sevilla (Spain)
Matthew Olosunde Manchester United (England)
Timothy Weah Paris Saint-Germain (France)

Currently, the LA Galaxy have two 20-and-under academy players on its MLS roster, and another six signed to professional contracts on the USL team. More are likely to come soon. Real Salt Lake has four 20-and-under academy players on its MLS roster; Toronto FC has six 20-and-under academy players already turned professional - one in MLS, five on its USL team; Vancouver has three 20-and-under on its MLS roster, one of whom is 16, and another five on the USL team; Sporting Kansas City has three 20-and-under on its MLS roster and another four on its USL team.

These are all professional players.

By contrast, the New York Red Bulls, a team that keeps preaching a commitment to youth development and pounding its chest over how great its Academy is, has three players 20-and-under on its MLS roster (including Anatole Abang who is unlikely to return to the team, currently being out on loan in Denmark while going on multiple trials as well). On the USL roster, there is (for now) not one - Junior Flemmings turned 21 on January 16, 2017.

New York Red Bulls II is supposed to be the club’s epicenter of development and integration with the RBNY Academy, but as of January 22, 2017, it has no players under 21 on its roster, and just one Academy graduate (David Najem).

There is a flaw in the system. By signing players recently out of college, some with and some without academy links, RBNY will find options for end of the roster players and guys off the bench more immediately than if they took the long view. However, with the current system, for every Aaron Long, there are five or six others who may show well at the USL level but cannot force their way into the first team and have to be let go.

The current system seems to prioritize short-term objectives over development and long-term planning: sign a few 22 or 23 year olds every season, keep a few for an extra year, jettison the rest. The benefit of signing younger, usually academy, talent is that the team can control their development. Additionally, the team can potentially develop superstars, not just find end-of-the-roster filler.

The LA Galaxy has shown that a second team can serve both immediate and longer-term goals. LA has brought through roster-filler guys like Daniel Steres, David Romney, and Ariel Lassiter from Los Dos to the first team. Whether as spot starters or strong bench options these players provide a valuable service. This is what New York is doing at the moment. But LA is doing something else with its second team as well. It is nurturing young talent to be stars of tomorrow. The end goal for Ryo Fujii, Eric Lopez, and Hugo Arellano is not to be replacement-level players, it is to be MLS starters, MLS All-Stars, and national team players. Some will end up only being bench options but that is okay because LA is playing the numbers game: when the team is bringing through eight young players at once within the confines of the club, it can afford if one or two do not work out. When New York is only bringing through four players at once, it cannot afford to miss.

USL Championships are great and NYRB II’s 2016 was a lot of fun to watch and experience. But the goal of NYRB II is to send players to RBNY in the pursuit of MLS Championships. A couple of the better players from last year’s triumphant II team are already signed up to continue their careers elsewhere: Speedy Williams will play for Louisville City in 2017; Zach Carroll is at Orlando City B. Neither was an Academy prospect and both deserve the chance to take their careers to other teams if RBNY isn’t thinking of them as future first-teamers.

But the New York Red Bulls have close to two-dozen Academy players in college now who are good enough to be playing in the USL. No matter the environment, not all of them will become MLS players. That is the reality of development. However, if the team can put even 25% of top Academy prospects in a full-time professional environment (ideally, before they take the college route), then it at least increases the odds of the alumni from NYRB II’s next Championship team being of service to RBNY’s future rather than that of Louisville City.