The New York Red Bulls' first 2017 preseason training camp roster was published with one obvious cause for concern: only one under-contract center back. With Gideon Baah not yet fit enough to join the squad, Aurelien Collin was the only MLS-contracted CB on team, just two days before its opening preseason friendly.
No cause for panic, of course: there is the better part of a month to go before RBNY kicks off its season on February 22 with a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal (first leg) against Vancouver Whitecaps. And the Red Bulls eased concerns by revealing that veteran CB Damien Perrinelle will be returning to the team (and joining the squad in Arizona for preseason).
Phew. So there will be two MLS-contracted CBs with RBNY in Tucson. Not quite time for celebration, but a step in the right direction.
Once Perrinelle arrives, that should boost RBNY's training group in Arizona to 30 players.
Goalkeepers: Rafael Diaz, Evan Louro, Ryan Meara,
Defenders: Justin Bilyeu, Aurelien Collin, Connor Lade, Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long (NYRB II), Jordan Scarlett (unsigned draft pick), Tim Schmoll (NYRB II), Sal Zizzo, Damien Perrinelle
Midfielders: Tyler Adams, Arun Basuljevic, Vincent Bezecourt (NYRB II), Sean Davis, Derrick Etienne, Mike Grella, Ethan Kutler (unsigned draft pick), Zeiko Lewis (unsigned draft pick), Felipe, Dan Metzger, David Najem (NYRB II), Daniel Royer, Florian Valot (NYRB II), Gonzalo Veron
Forwards: Brandon Allen, Robbie Findley (trialist), Davide Somma (trialist)
Perrinelle's after-the-fact signing illustrates the point that this is merely the first published training squad of preseason. There will be others, and we can expect players to be in and out of RBNY's training throughout the next month or so - not least around February 22, when the Red Bulls may have to field a team in Arizona while also contesting a CCL quarterfinal in Harrison.
So what appear to be issues with the squad now are by no means issues that the team does not plan to address, or has not (perhaps) addressed already - since there is the distinct impression RBNY is currently experiencing significant delays in its communication of its off-season activities.
Best then to treat this roster as a work in progress. It may grow, at least change, or simply split into the squad for CCL and the players left behind to audition for remaining MLS roster spots and USL contracts. We will find out more as February 22 edges ever closer.
Until the next preseason milestone, here are three initial thoughts on RBNY's first announced training squad of 2017:
1. Maybe this is what continuity looks like
Everyone is here, more or less. The squad is missing four MLS-contracted players and one II-teamer. All have been accounted for by RBNY: Sacha Kljestan and Luis Robles are in USMNT's January training camp; Gideon Baah isn't fit for the trip, still recovering from the injury that ended his 2016 season; Bradley Wright-Phillips is staying home to welcome an addition to his family - his third child - that we are hoping he will name BW3.
NYRB II's Junior Flemmings is, like Baah, still on the way back from injury.
Other than those five, RBNY has taken every contracted player it has to Arizona. Of course, the MLS team is expected to be present in MLS preseason training and NYRB II only has six contracted players at the moment - it's hardly a radical notion to bring everyone along for the trip. But it felt like there was another shoe to drop with regard to the roster when the team published the fact it had brought a gaping hole at center back to Arizona; after Damien Perrinelle's return has been announced, it still feels like there are one or two significant acquisitions to be made.
Or maybe not. Maybe the pattern of this off-season is RBNY's sole intention: keep as much of a senior core of players together as it is willing (miss you, Dax) or able (sad to see you go, Chris) to do, and fill in the gaps on the roster from the ranks of an academy and USL program that has nurtured a lot of talent.
We're used to scouting preseason pictures for unfamiliar faces and matching them to unfamiliar names when the rosters come out. Maybe this year, however, the Red Bulls have fully embraced continuity. Maybe this year, what we see is what we get out of preseason.
2. Two kinds of trialist?
There is plenty of space on the MLS roster, and it is to be assumed that those players in RBNY's training camp without MLS contracts would like to get one. They can't all get one this season, not with RBNY unless there is a major adjustment to roster restrictions for 2017.
But the Red Bulls currently have 25 players on MLS contracts. They won't all necessarily still be with the team by the time the season starts. Last year, for example, three Homegrown players - Mael Corboz, Chris Thorsheim, and Scott Thomsen - were signed and released before the season had really got started. But for now, we assume there are basically three open roster spots (working on the assumption MLS rosters are still limited to a total of 28 players) on the first team.
There are 10 unsigned players in the current preseason camp, all of whom can be assumed to be on trial for MLS contracts - because once you're mixing it with the first team, you have a chance to confound expectations and send the coaching staff scrambling for your agent's number.
But some may be more on trial than others.
Jordan Scarlett might be an unheralded third-round draft pick, but he is also a former RBNY Academy player (h/t Brian.MLS). He's effectively competing with front-runner Aaron Long (2016 USL Defender of the Year and loaned up to RBNY from NYRB II last season) and Tim Schmoll (reliable NYRB II center back who had lost his starting place for the reserves by the end of the 2016 season, but has been retained unlike the man who displaced him, Zach Carroll). The team could use another center back - maybe (at least) one of them gets the nod.
Draft pick Ethan Kutler has something in common with II-teamer David Najem: RBNY thinks both of them can play right back. Najem played a fair amount of RB for NYRB II last season; Jesse Marsch has said he wants to look at Kutler as a potential convert to RB in preseason. Kutler is usually regarded as an attacking player; Najem showed well for the II team as a central midfielder when there was a start to be had at a crowded position for the reserves in 2016. So they are potentially versatile players too. USL seems the most likely destination for both, especially for Najem, since he is already contracted to NYRB II next season. But if there's room in the first team for a right-back project player, they are auditioning for that spot.
Vincent Bezecourt, Florian Valot, Zeiko Lewis, and - when he gets fit again - Junior Flemmings have a tougher task. They aren't identical players, but they all essentially could fit into the attacking quartet that RBNY likes to play in its current incarnation. It's difficult (impossible if no one gets cut and there isn't a change to MLS roster rules) to see how all four get into the first team, and there may realistically only be one place available for a player of their collective profile. The MLS team is stacked with forward-thinking, versatile, creative players. So much so that two of them - Sean Davis and Felipe - are probably the team's starting holding midfield duo. The front four doesn't really need another four options, but it could probably find a place for one more.
Perhaps most importantly, all eight of the trialists (nine, if you include Flemmings) fit RBNY's preferred age and talent profile: whatever their best is going to be, it's still ahead of them.
The other two trialists conspicuously do not fit the profile. Robbie Findley is a 31-year-old with USMNT caps, a successful stint at Real Salt Lake among his career achievements, and who spent time in MLS (with Toronto FC) as recently as 2015. But he spent last season in NASL. And he'll turn 32 in August.
Davide Somma has a handful of caps for South Africa to his name, and enjoyed a couple of successful seasons in England (most notably with Leeds United) before injury knocked his career sideways. He effectively disappeared from the game after 2013, but no less source than RBNY's communications manager says he is a familiar face around the team's training ground:
Somma will turn 32 in March.
Both Somma and Findley could have future with RBNY. One could argue there's value in having a versatile, experienced attacker who might be able to mimic BWP's greatest strength - his movement. Findley might be that guy. Equally useful: a bigger target in the box than the team has on the roster right now. Somma is listed as 6' 3".
And RBNY has made room on its roster for an older pro who can add value to the squad as a seasoned presence in training and around the locker room. Maybe Findley and Somma are competing for the role occupied by Shaun Wright-Phillips over the past couple of seasons.
This observer suspects, however, that the two veteran forwards are in the camp more to help the coaching staff test the defenders it has in Arizona than for their own potential to win a contract with RBNY for 2017.
3. International commitments will probably keep this squad fluid
The team is currently training without Sacha Kljestan and Luis Robles. The two senior players are expected to miss the entire first segment of RBNY's preseason, since they will hope to be involved in USMNT's January camp until it ends on February 3 (and the Red Bulls head home to Harrison on February 4).
The conclusion of USMNT's camp is a friendly against Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz should announce their squad for that game shortly, and the Jamaicans are expected to assemble on February 1. If Kemar Lawrence gets (and accepts the call) he could be out of RBNY's preseason reach until February 16 - when Jamaica concludes its February friendly schedule with a game against Honduras.
Finally, if Tyler Adams gets called back to the USA U-20 MNT, he could be away from RBNY from January 31 until...well, maybe until March 5. The U-20s have their last training camp before the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship from January 31 to February 10. The CONCACAF tournament starts on February 17 and runs to March 5. The US U-20s will hope to be in Costa Rica until the last day of the competition.
There could be plenty of movement in and out of camp between now and February 22, perhaps necessitating the arrival of several more trialists or guest players - especially if the squad has to be split in two in mid-February to keep RBNY present at Desert Diamond Cup in Arizona while it sends its first team to play Vancouver in CCL.