In their first day back at their Training Facility in more than a week, the New York Red Bulls spent perhaps more time than they had imagined would be necessary talking about Gideon Baah. It was, after all, their first day back to work since the big MLS Week One win in Atlanta. But the news of the day was the loss of Gideon Baah, not the weekend’s victory.
An official announcement from Sporting Director Denis Hamlett started the day with confirmation that the defender had indeed been written out of RBNY’s plans for the entire 2017 season:
We have made the decision that we think is best. This lets him focus on rehab with our medical staff. Our primary goal is making sure he has the time and resources to return to 100% health.
Baah is on the team’s Season-Ending injury list. Per MLS roster regulations, he can only play for NYRB II in USL (or be traded away from RBNY entirely) this year - he cannot play for the first team this season.
The Red Bulls’ decision to give Baah a full year to recover from the broken leg that ended his 2016 campaign with the team is a sharp turn away from prior news about the player, which had been gently encouraging fans to expect him to return to the field and the first team in the not-too-distant future.
Somewhere between last week - when Baah was jogging around the Training Facility - and this week, RBNY decided it was time abandon the idea the 25-year-old would be a first team player in 2017.
It is surely a disappointment for Baah, who had spoken of his determination to be back on the field this year after the frustration of losing most of his first year in MLS to injury.
This is not his first significant injury. It took Baah more than two years to get back to league play in Ghana after breaking a bone in his leg in early 2010. But he bounced back to pick up two league titles with Asante Kotoko before transferring to FC Honka in Finland in 2013. He was the Finnish top-flight’s Rookie and Defender of the Year in his first season, winning a move to heavyweight HJK Helsinki - he won a league and cup double in his first year with Helsinki.
The player RBNY signed in 2016 was a young, yet seasoned, defender with a record of playing for title-winning teams. And he’d just edged on to the radar of the Ghana Men’s National Team (indeed, it was in the course of winning his first cap for his country that he met Lloyd Sam - then of RBNY - and became known to the Red Bulls).
It can be hoped Baah does get the chance to play often and well for NYRB II in USL this year. Though the level might be not be where he wants to play, it is surely better than another lost year in his career.
RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch told MSG’s Kristian Dyer the club was sympathetic to Baah’s situation with regard to his history and undoubted concern for his future:
It’s a strange kind of injury and one he’s been through before. It’s tough, it’s a tough moment for Gideon. And that’s the thing that makes it tough for all of us, trying to get through this but do it in a way where we’re very supportive and give him the best chance to ultimately get back to being a pro.
In the same report for MSG, Dyer also prodded Marsch into admitting the decision to shut down Baah for the season had created a vacancy in the squad that would likely need to be filled:
That’s probably the one more piece that we need to supplement that position. So we’ll see. Right now, [sporting director Denis Hamlett] and our scouts are evaluating what might be next in that spot. Yeah, a lot of work is being put into that.
When Marsch says “a lot of work”, he is perhaps referring to the restrictions that govern the replacement of a player on the MLS Season-Ending Injury list.
The Red Bulls currently have four open spots on their MLS roster. One of those spots has been cleared by parking Baah on the sidelines for the rest of season. The team gets “roster relief” for the decision to end Baah’s season: his roster spot and the international slot he occupied are now open, and can be filled more or less at RBNY’s leisure.
But they do not get to remove Baah’s salary - he was reportedly guaranteed $315,000 for the 2016 season - from their overall MLS Salary Budget: i.e. Baah still counts against the salary cap for RBNY. Per MLS roster regulations, however, the Red Bulls do have a brief opportunity to sign a Season-Ending Injury Replacement Player - who they would have to fund out of their own pocket, but whose salary would not count against the cap.
To take advantage of that chance, the Red Bulls have to sign the Replacement Player before the end of the league’s Primary Transfer Window: May 8, 2017.
The Replacement Player cannot earn more than Baah or $250,000 - whichever is lower - but that shouldn’t be an issue since Baah’s 2016 salary seems to have been right around that ballpark ($230,000 base; $315,000 guaranteed - per the MLS Players Union).
If RBNY has the cap space to sign a defender of similar profile to Baah’s level, it will surely choose not to accept the MLS invitation to dip into its own pocket to fund a replacement. But Baah was the 10th highest-paid player on the roster in 2016, and is probably a little higher up that list in 2017 (Dax McCarty have left the team). His cap hit is not insignificant - this year’s total salary budget for a team in MLS is $3,485,000 - and the club might have already earmarked whatever reserves it has of GAM and TAM (the primary cap-busting resources at a club’s disposal in MLS) for other acquisitions.
It isn’t necessarily the case that Baah was sidelined to allow RBNY to sign a replacement for him. The end of the Ghanaian’s season frees up a place on the roster for an international player - and RBNY would have no such spot available otherwise. It is thought the Red Bulls will shortly sign RB Salzburg’s Fredrik Gulbrandsen - a Norwegian forward - on loan: that transfer can’t happen without an open international slot on the roster.
But Gulbrandsen is not a defender. He can’t do what Baah was signed to do. And without Baah, the team looks a little light on center backs. Aurelien Collin is expected to log most minutes at center back for RBNY this season, but is subject to form, fitness, and suspension issues like anyone else. Damien Perrinelle has had his own injury problems in his time with RBNY. Aaron Long is an increasingly highly-rated player, but still one effectively playing his rookie season in MLS (though he is not inexperienced and was the 2016 USL Defender of the Year). Hassan Ndam is an 18-year-old who was playing (elite level) high school soccer last year.
RBNY could use another center back to feel comfortable about options at the position over a full season - we know this mostly because RBNY had Gideon Baah on the roster for exactly that reason. And Baah was a day-one starting CB for the Red Bulls at the beginning of last season.
His loss is significant. It will be a surprise if a replacement is not signed by May 8, though that replacement will almost certainly have to be an American player - and at this stage of the season, RBNY might have to find something or someone to trade to get a player of appropriate caliber, since most American MLS-ready CBs are already signed to MLS rosters by now.
The Red Bulls can still sign a replacement after May 8, but they will lose some of their treasured “flexibility” if they pass on the chance to bring in an off-budget salary to balance the weight of Baah’s wages against the cap.
The rumor mill should start up soon: a team in obvious need is a siren song for agents of discontented players. The last time RBNY had need of a proven MLS-ready CB at short notice, it landed Aurelien Collin, who was himself in need of a new place to play after falling out of favor at Orlando. If Denis Hamlett can pull off anything close to the mugging Ali Curtis executed to land Collin - and that replacement can be anywhere close to as successful for RBNY in 2017 as Collin was in 2016 - then the new Sporting Director will be well on his way to proving he can fill the shoes of his predecessor.