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Rumor: New York Red Bulls to include Anatole Abang in squad for Eastern Conference Final second leg

Chris Armas needs a miracle, and maybe he’s spelling miracle A-B-A-N-G.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

According to Allez Les Lions, Anatole Abang has got the call to the New York Red Bulls’ match-day squad for the second leg of the team’s 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Final against Atlanta United.

Abang was not in the Red Bulls’ 18 for the first leg, nor has he played a minute for the first team since returning from what must be the longest, strangest loan period in the club’s history. He did have a short and characteristically eventful stint for NYRB II this season: nine appearances, six starts, three goals, one yellow card and one red card.

But for the most part it has appeared that Abang only returned to RBNY because he’d had another loan go awry and his contract will expire at the end of this year. (surely; has to; cannot possibly be contracted to a club that doesn’t want him for any longer than four years).

Since coming back to the Red Bulls at the beginning of August, Abang has made match-day squads for the first team, but not with any regularity or apparent hope of making it off the bench.

It isn’t entirely clear what sources are informing allezleslions.net, nor is it clear whether the story is celebrating Abang being named to the starting lineup (which would be a shock), the bench (most likely), or misinterpreting Chris Armas’ intention in asking for Abang to train with the first team. Perhaps just an over-eager reading of the player’s Twitter feed.

Also, there is time for Armas to change his mind, if he is indeed minded at all to include Abang in his plans for what will be RBNY’s last game of 2018 if the team doesn’t pull off a big win.

You have to go all the way back to 2015 to find the last time Anatole Abang made a significant contribution to the New York Red Bulls’ cause: he scored the team’s last goal of that season, the goal that briefly gave RBNY hope of getting something meaningful out of a playoff series with Columbus Crew. It was a very brief hope - Abang got about 20 minutes off the bench in the second leg of the 2015 MLS Eastern Conference Final and scored the Red Bulls’ only goal of the game in injury time; sadly, RBNY needed two goals to force extra-time but could only find one.

Still, back then it appeared that Abang had a bright future with RBNY. He’d scored for fun for NYRB II in 2015, and chipped in with six goals in all competitions in regular but limited appearances with the first team (21 appearances in all competitions; just five starts and 571 minutes). He had a role to play and it could be reasonably assumed - since he was 19 - that role would only get more significant. In March 2016, Abang got his first cap for the Cameroon men’s national team, which seemed to confirm the notion he was a rapidly rising star.

And then things went wrong. The Red Bulls endured a rough start to their 2016 MLS campaign: six losses in their first seven league games. Abang was a regular in that stretch - five appearances and one start - but appeared to fall out of favor as RBNY enjoyed a turnaround in form. He got another start followed by a couple of off-the-bench appearances in late June and early July, but that stint coincided with another slump for the Red Bulls.

Maybe then head coach Jesse Marsch decided Abang was bad luck for his team. Certainly, the goals had dried up - though Abang had continued to find the net regularly when asked to play for the II team. A mid-August report on Camfoot.com described a player enduring “unsustainable frustration”, said to be frozen out of the first team without explanation. The report also stated that Abang and his agent had arranged a loan away from RBNY, so that the player could get back to regular minutes and protect his burgeoning national team career.

Whatever the reason, Abang moved on shortly after that report was published. RBNY offloaded the player to another club: he was loaned to Hobro in Denmark before the end of August. It took then Sporting Director Ali Curtis about two weeks to issue an official statement about the move.

Abang was supposed to stay with Hobro until the end of the Danish 2016-17 season, but the club changed head coaches during its winter break and Abang’s loan was terminated at the end of January 2017. What followed was a bizarre spat between Hobro and fellow Danish club Naestved over a bungled transfer deadline day effort to move Abang from one team to the other.

The upshot of the whole affair was Abang had no club to play for, but since this was in February 2017 and RBNY was in preseason and optimistically trialing attacking options like Robbie Findley, it seemed he’d simply return to the Red Bulls earlier than expected. Or not: Kristian Dyer reported he’d been told Abang would not be returning to MLS.

And Abang did not return. Rumors came and went about his next club, he remained stubbornly listed as “on loan” by MLS and RBNY, and then he landed at Finnish club SJK at the end of March.

His stint in Finland didn’t last long. SJK terminated Abang’s loan in early May. For the second time in less than 12 months, Abang was on loan to nowhere and there was no sign of his returning to RBNY. Jesse Marsch didn’t offer much insight into the club’s thoughts about the player, other than the turbulent loan period was a “soap opera”.

By the end of May, Abang had been “on loan” for about nine months, and had been without a club for about a third of that time. His second loan to nowhere lasted almost three months; in early August, Romania’s FC Astra Giurgiu signed Abang to a loan announced to be for the full 2017-18 season.

This raised a new question: exactly how long was Abang’s contract and why wouldn’t RBNY cut him loose? It is generally assumed that MLS clubs sign the bulk of their players to one or two year contracts with options to extend for a further one or two years. Abang had joined RBNY in 2015 and been loaned out in the summer of 2016 - so maybe that was him playing out the tail-end of a two-year deal (MLS contracts tend to terminate in December). But he was still listed as “on loan” by RBNY when he had no club at all in February 2017 - OK, that’s a three-year deal. But if Astra was taking Abang on loan until the middle of 2018, that would imply he was on a four-year deal with RBNY, suggesting his contract had been extended at least once, maybe twice, during a 12-month stretch in which the Red Bulls appeared to want nothing to to with him.

The mystery of Abang’s interminable exile and contract was unsolved but also largely irrelevant: the nomadic forward seemed to be settling down, getting regular appearances with Astra and scoring a few goals.

The soap opera returned in May: Abang was accused of stealing from his own teammates. He was also the subject of transfer interest from Romanian heavyweight Steaua Bucharest, which provided the Romanian press with the opportunity to solicit the thoughts of SCFB’s scandal-prone owner, Gigi Becali, on his team’s scandal-prone transfer target.

Abang spent much of the summer of 2018 as a minor celebrity in Romania, featuring repeatedly in the national soccer press. In June, it was claimed the forward had abandoned the club, refusing to return despite Astra having activated the purchase option on his contract. The Cameroonian press rallied to Abang’s support. The website 237foot.com carried the player’s side of the story: unpaid wages, threats and efforts effectively to blackmail Abang into extending his contract with the club; rather than submit to any further mistreatment the player was going to stay away from Romania and wait for another club to make an offer.

And then came perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire Abang loan saga: he came back to RBNY (so much for a purchase option being exercised). After the best part of two years on loan to three clubs and two loan-to-nowhere stints; after it was reported he wasn’t returning to MLS; after the Red Bulls stopped acknowledging anything more substantial about the player than the fact he was indeed alive: Anatole Abang came home to RBNY.

What did the Red Bulls have to say about the fact Abang had spent two years in exile and the two months preceding his return being accused of theft and breaking his contract? Not much at all. Abang’s return was presented almost as the intended outcome of the entire saga:

A different player and a different person, indeed. But one thing has remained constant for Abang since the summer of 2016: he hasn’t been allowed a minute for RBNY in MLS. If that changes on November 29, it would be a surprise. If Abang not only plays, but plays in an improbable win of sufficient proportion to put RBNY in the MLS Cup Final (the Red Bulls need to win 3-0, at least) - we would be simultaneously watching two of the greatest comebacks in club and league history.