With their second pick of the 2018 MLS SuperDraft - the eighth pick of the second round and 31st overall - the New York Red Bulls selected Niko De Vera.
By the time the draft rolls into its second round, most players are unknown to all but the most attentive college soccer-watchers. De Vera did not get a lot of attention in the build-up to the draft, but ex-RBNY GM Ali Curtis - part of the MLS SuperDraft commentary team on the day - was quick to note that the player is a left-back and the Red Bulls have need for a left-back.
The need is not immediate: Kemar Lawrence will be the team’s preferred starter in the position for as long as he is on the roster, one suspects. But Lawrence is ambitious and increasingly looks destined for a stint in Europe - if and when he finds a club willing to take him on. He is also a senior player for the Jamaica men’s national team, which means he is often called away from RBNY for international duty.
Absent Lawrence, the Red Bulls have several players on their roster who could step in at the left-back spot - Connor Lade perhaps foremost among them. And head coach Jesse Marsch has more than a few tactical variations he can deploy to adjust for a line-up lacking the Jamaican’s speed and anticipation: qualities essential to his uncanny ability to pop up seemingly wherever and whenever he is needed to douse a fire at the back or create options in the final third.
But if Lawrence transfers out of the team (and it will be surprising if he doesn’t, eventually), the idea that Lade and some re-purposed stand-ins add up to an adequate replacement is difficult to support. At the very least, the roster will be short a specialist back-up.
Niko De Vera is no one’s idea of an immediate challenger for RBNY’s starting left-back position, but his selection is further reminder that it’s a potential area of concern for the team. One would expect De Vera to be asked to spend at least a season playing for the Red Bulls reserve team in USL, but if there were a first-team roster spot handed to a draft pick this year - the guy who is a natural fit at left-back would be this observer’s choice.
De Vera played four years at Akron, where he made 60 appearances (41 starts), tallying one goal and seven assists. He was the second pick of the 2018 MLS draft from the well-regarded Akron men’s soccer program: first-overall pick Joao Moutinho preceded him.
It was perhaps fitting that RBNY spent this particular selection on an Akron product. In the 2017 preseason, the Red Bulls were unable to coax Homegrown prospect Adam Najem into a contract and traded his MLS rights to the Philadelphia Union in exchange for what turned out to be this pick in the 2018 SuperDraft. De Vera and Najem were teammates at Akron.
De Vera is a Portland Timbers Academy product, and played for the Timbers U-23s in PDL in 2017. The team won the league’s Northwest Division and was knocked out of the playoffs in the Conference semifinals.
In his post-selection remarks on De Vera, Jesse Marsch noted the player has drawn comparison with Connor Lade - mostly because both men are not tall. But Marsch was quick to put that comparison on more substantive footing:
“We think that being a left-footed outside back that’s pretty mobile and smart, that there are a lot of comparisons to who Connor Lade is - and if he can be the player that Connor is, then we’ll be in really good shape.”