LITTLE FERRY, N.J. – Nestled in a small town by Teterboro Airport is the Allstate agency Aurelien Collin embarked toward late Tuesday afternoon. The veteran MLS center back has become accustomed to playing with three-man backlines in recent seasons, and on this night, the sidelined defensive skipper represented the Red Bulls and MLS as one-third of a $5,000 scholarship surprise.
As a gathering of representatives from Allstate, Alianza U and the Red Bulls waited for the high school recipient to arrive at the doorstep, Jose Espejo, head of the agency, quipped the Red Bulls center back with a big smile: “Are you in good hands.”
Truth be told, there have been brighter times for the 32-year-old defensive skipper, who smiled and shrugged whenever the topic of his team’s 3-0 first leg hole was brought up. Elimination on Thursday may not only mean the end to a season, but the end to a two-and-a-half year stay with the Red Bulls – an organization Collin dreamed of playing for ever since he arrived in the United States.
“In Europe, LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls are the two biggest clubs,” Collin said. “So, every time I was coming to Red Bull Arena, I was making my best games, I scored. It was always something very special.”
But there was an even bigger factor about the Red and White that allured the French-born defender, beyond the pristine arena and profile in Europe: Thierry Henry.
Collin faced Henry for the first time on April 30, 2011, inside Red Bull Arena. Despite being 25-years-old and hardened by stops in Scotland, where his club was liquidated after the season, Greece, where his club was relegated after the season, and Portugal, where his club flirted with the drop, Collin was immediately a kid again when Henry knew him by name.
“Thierry Henry came to me and called me by my first name, a special thing for me, he was a big star,” Collin said with a smile. “He called me by my first name and said, ‘Hey, you’re good.’ And, I was like a kid, you know?”
After a success-starved beginning in Europe, Collin left Sporting KC after the 2014 season with the highest honors: 2012 MLS Best XI and U.S. Open Cup, along with 2013 MLS Cup and Cup Final MVP.
When Collin joined Orlando City in December 2014, he felt a parallel to four years prior, when Peter Vermes traveled to Madeira for a Primeira Liga match, in search of rebranded Sporting’s defensive pillar.
But, during year two in Orlando, the walls caved in on Collin, and in many ways on the organization as well. In need of his own personal rebirth, he was traded on May 6, 2016 to the Red Bulls, then without Henry, but with two French center backs in Damien Perrinelle and Ronald Zubar.
After the Dark Age that was Orlando, Collin experienced a career renaissance in New York, starting 21 league matches for a Red Bulls team that turned around a 3-6-1 start and finished first place in the Eastern Conference standings.
In the ensuing winter, Collin received offers that exceeded the contract he ultimately signed to stay in New York, a two-year deal with an upcoming option this off-season.
“Actually, I had another team that offered me a very good salary, but I chose to stay in the Red Bulls,” Collin said. “So, that was my decision, I wanted to stay. I’m very happy here; the club, the organization, the staff, honestly it’s been amazing.”
In the two years since signing that deal, though, Collin has started only 12 league games, barely half the amount he did in that six-month stretch in 2016. Aaron Long’s ascension in 2017, and then Tim Parker’s acquisition ahead of this season, in many ways locked the playing field door on Collin, and he recognizes that.
“Of course, having the high line, you have to be very, very fast, to recover faster,” Collin said. “That’s why Tim Parker and Aaron Long, they’re very, very good, and better than me at this point.”
The former MLS All-Star has been a role model this season, though, not only preventing the scarcity of minutes from manifesting into negative energy, but persistently bringing positivity to training sessions.
Nevertheless, his 2018 base salary of $450,000 is six times that of teammate and MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long. Collin says that he is happy with the Red Bulls, and that he values being in the right club environment over money, but to what point?
“Money is good, but, it’s more important to feel good and [be somewhere] you know you can progress and work hard, and that’s what I’ve been doing the last two years,” Collin said. “Sometimes I don’t play that much, but, I keep working hard.”
For the moment, Collin is sidelined by more than the two elite center backs in front of him, as a broken cheekbone sustained earlier this month ended his season.
With his New York future uncertain, Collin will walk into Red Bull Arena – a place that always brought out the best in him – on Thursday night, and look to help bring out the very best in his teammates. They will need it to achieve the required four-goal turnaround.
“We proved before that we can score against them,” Collin said. “And, we know where we can hurt them…and that’s what we have to do. The same way we came back from Columbus in the semifinal, you have to come back home with the same mentality. Yeah, I really believe, we’re going to make it.”