The New York Red Bulls have been known to be in the market for a center-back for at least two months. Back in May, Kristian Dyer reported for MSG that the team had "identified three center-backs...between the ages of 21-25" and one of those three would be among the Red Bulls' 2017 summer signings.
Since then, the team has repeatedly assured fans it will be active in the summer transfer window - as recently as training on Thursday, July 20, RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch was reiterating what has become the standard on-the-record response to inquiries about potential new recruits to the squad: coming soon.
Also from #RBNY training @jessemarsch said that he is optimistic a new signing or two would and could be soon.— Kristian Dyer (@KristianRDyer) July 20, 2017
What has been lacking is a name for RBNY fans to consider. That changed on the same day Marsch was telling reporters there would be new signings soon: news broke out of Panama that Fidel Escobar had stayed in the USA after his national team's exit from Gold Cup and was "in talks" with RBNY - where his fellow national-teamer Michael Amir Murillo is emerging as a starter in MLS.
RPCTV is credited with breaking the news, citing the word of Edgardo Carles, the player's agent. Carles told TVMAX's Somos La Sele that "there's nothing closed, but let's hope everything works out the best way."
RBNY fans might note that the Panamanian media had a pretty good handle on the progress of Amir Murillo's signing with the Red Bulls earlier this year.
It should also be noted, of course, that Escobar is a man looking for a new place to play.
¡¡¡BOOOM!!! Fidel Escobar suena fuerte para reforzar la zaga del Deportivo Cali. El panameño no seguiría en el Sporting Lisboa. #DuroAlHueso pic.twitter.com/rqdNsMK4hC— Álvaro Martínez (@duroalhueso) June 23, 2017
RBNY has successfully distanced itself from the more sensational side of the transfer rumor mill in recent seasons, but it is by no means immune to being sucked into stories intended to raise the profile of a player being shopped around by an ambitious agent.
Escobar does, however, fit what is understood to be RBNY's profile for one of its major summer signings: he plays mostly as a center-back and he is 22 years old. He's also one of the more highly-regarded prospects in Panama's national team set-up.
He was a prominent member of the Panama U-20 team that finished runner-up to Mexico at the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship. That team won all five of its group stage games without conceding a goal, beating Matt Miazga's USA squad along the way. And Escobar scored the equalizing penalty that gave Panama brief hope of besting El Tri in the final.
At the 2015 U-20 World Cup, Panama didn't get out of the group stage, but Escobar scored two of his team's three goals at the tournament - including one of the more memorable tallies of the competition.
Defenders with an eye for goal attract attention. Escobar spent the rest of 2015 playing for Sporting San Miguelito in Panama, but in the summer of 2016 he made a loan move to Portugal's heavyweight Lisbon club Sporting. (Incidentally, the agent quoted in the Panamanian press regarding that transfer is the same man quoted with regard to Escobar's potential move to RBNY: Edgardo Carles.)
He was also establishing himself in the Panama men's national team. In November 2016, Escobar was trusted to start for Los Canaleros alongside the legendary Felipe Baloy in the center of defense for the team's opening game of the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. It was a tough assignment: Panama's Hexagonal campaign started in Honduras. But Los Canaleros surprised more than a few observers by pulling off a win - 1-0 - in San Pedro Sula. Escobar was the goal scorer.
Escobar also started Panama's next World Cup qualifier - the team's 0-0 draw with Mexico in Panama City.
All told, it was a successful 2016 for the young defender, who had turned his promising work for Panama's U-20s in 2015 into a contract with a big European club and a starting role with the senior national team by the end of the following year.
Unfortunately, 2017 has been a little rockier for the player. In January - frustrated by a perceived lack of opportunity (he was playing for the club's B team) in Lisbon and citing offers from clubs in MLS, Colombia, and Mexico - Escobar attempted to strong-arm Sporting into cancelling his contract. The Portuguese club responded by threatening to report the player to FIFA, which could have brought a lengthy ban from pro soccer if he was found guilty of breaching his contract.
The matter was settled without derailing Escobar's career, but he joined the Panama squad for the 2017 Gold Cup as one of several players on the roster known to be seeking new employment.
He also managed to disrupt his progress with his national team this year. In March, he was dismissed from the Panama squad for disciplinary reasons, and missed out on the World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago (which Panama lost, 1-0) and the USA (tied, 1-1).
But he was back in Los Canaleros' starting lineup for their June Hexagonal matches, and he started three of the team's four matches at the 2017 Gold Cup.
Escobar's playing rights are reportedly still held by Sporting San Miguelito, so any proposed deal with RBNY might be a loan rather than an immediate, permanent transfer. The Red Bulls have appeared to favor loan-to-buy deals recently. For example, Amir Murillo is on loan to RBNY from his club in Panama, San Francisco - incidentally, the same club that developed Escobar.
There should be little doubt that Escobar is a player capable of challenging immediately for a starting spot with RBNY. He is starter for his national team coming out of a disappointing stint with a high-profile European club: he surely isn't looking for a few games in USL with NYRB II at this stage in his career. And if the Red Bulls really want to send out an international-caliber center-back for the II team, they can play Gideon Baah in the reserves - since his season-ending injury designation prevents him from appearing for the first team this year, and is the reason RBNY is shopping for center-backs this summer.
But Escobar's recent and repeated disciplinary issues might recommend the Red Bulls to seek out a try-before-you-buy deal for his services. He is a player thought to have a bright future for his country, and with the greatest respect to RBNY, it was once imagined he had a brighter future at the club level than is offered by MLS. But his career mis-step could be to the Red Bulls' benefit. As long as his worst days of indiscipline and petulance are behind him, Escobar's best days as a player are still in his future - and RBNY has done well to insert itself into the conversation about where one of the more talented young center-backs in CONCACAF will try his luck next.