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Amro Tarek saves the day: New York Red Bulls steal needed center-back depth from Orlando City

We have no idea if this will be RBNY’s best deal of the off-season, but it will surely be the most timely.

MLS: Toronto FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, all that is required for a trade to be successful is for it to look like the right move at the right time. Amro Talek’s arrival at the New York Red Bulls was one such trade.

Around 2:30 pm on Tuesday, December 11, the Red Bulls appeared to have a problem: they had only one center-back on their roster.

Sporting Director Denis Hamlett let five CBs go at the end of the season. Negotiations were ongoing and reportedly promising with out-of-contract starter Tim Parker, but until his signature was secured on a new deal, RBNY had Aaron Long and Hassan Ndam as the only specialist center-backs under contract for 2019 - and by around 2:30 pm on December 11, Ndam had been snapped up by FC Cincinnati in the 2018 Expansion Draft. The Red Bulls were down to one CB.

It’s early days in the off-season. Hamlett didn’t accidentally release five CBs at the end of the year, any more than he accidentally dangled Ndam in front of Cincinnati. Hamlett surely had a plan. But at 2:30 pm on December 11, all we could see of Hamlett’s plan for the 2019 roster was all the risk and none of the reward.

Hamlett let the tension build for about an hour, and then made his first significant player acquisition announcement of the current off-season: the Red Bulls had signed Amro Tarek - a defender - from Orlando City.

It was a perfectly timed announcement. Any questions about why Hamlett had chosen to risk rising star Ndam in the Expansion Draft were immediately answered: worst case, if Cincinnati took the Red Bulls promising center-back (which happened), there’d be an obvious replacement in the squad before the end of the day (which also happened).

Teams are only allowed to protect 11 players in the Expansion Draft. RBNY is coming off its Best Season Ever thanks to its Deepest Squad Ever - if it didn’t have players of value exposed to the draft, that would rather undermine the suggestion that the Red Bulls’ strength was the depth of its roster. Good teams have more than 11 players they don’t want to lose for nothing at all (or almost nothing - MLS compensates teams $50,000 in allocation money for being victimized by the Expansion Draft). RBNY is a good team; RBNY lost a good player - albeit a 20-year-old defender with two career MLS appearances to date and his best days very much ahead of him.

As a promising but ultimately still unproven (at the MLS level) player, Ndam’s departure was never going to cause the entire RBNY fan base to collapse in dismay. But having only one center-back under contract is a situation all but the most deluded optimistic fans should recognize as sub-optimal for their team. And for as long as that situation persisted, it would appear the Red Bulls had a serious roster problem to address.

The situation persisted for an hour. Two center-backs on the roster is still some distance from a full complement, but it is 100% better than one. The move bought Hamlett time to continue his off-season work unperturbed by what would otherwise have been a growing level of concern in the fan base. Not that a sporting director needs the fanbase to be happy in order to be doing a good job, but why subject your team’s fans to a winter of discontent if it can be avoided? Hamlett didn’t even allow RBNY fans a lunch break of discontent.

So the Red Bulls started and finished the day with the same number of CBs on the roster. Not enough for the season ahead, but sufficient evidence of attention to the issue for it to be said with some confidence that Hamlett has the matter in hand. And the day still had time for even better news: Ives Galarcep reported RBNY has reached a deal with Tim Parker.

Mark December 11, 2018 as one of Denis Hamlett’s better days as RBNY’s Sporting Director. It looked like it would be a day the Red Bulls would lose, but it ended as a win.

The question of whether Amro Tarek actually plays and plays well for the Red Bulls is almost immaterial: he could be cut from the squad in pre-season and his signing would still be a success - because it provided Hamlett with the peace and quiet he’ll need for the coming days and weeks to sign the other center-back options the squad will need in 2019. If those options end up contributing more than Tarek to a winning season for RBNY: good for them; Tarek saved a day that needed saving for the Red Bulls, which is more than a lot of signings achieve in their time at the club.

There is further reason to applaud the Tarek deal: it was ostensibly a steal. The Red Bulls sent Orlando a fourth-round pick in the 2019 SuperDraft in exchange for positional cover they desperately needed. Tarek is a 26-year-old defender who started 19 games for Orlando in 2018 and was named to Egypt’s preliminary 2018 World Cup squad - the Red Bulls could have sent OCSC all their 2019 fourth-round draft picks (they should have had three to trade) and this deal would still have appeared very much in RBNY’s favor.

Our colleagues at the Mane Land have since unearthed the news that Orlando’s willingness to give Tarek away for less than RBNY got for losing Hassan Ndam was down to the fact the player is owed a pay rise for 2019 and OCSC also hasn’t got around to completely paying off his transfer fee. RBNY is picking up the tab for both and bailing Orlando out of its present financial difficulty.

So Orlando couldn’t cover its debts and frugal RalfBalling RBNY stepped in to profit. Tarek’s reported base salary in 2018 was around $80,000 - whatever he was promised for 2019, clearly the Red Bulls can afford it.

Orlando offered The Orlando Sentinel’s Jordan Culver a not-entirely-convincing counterpoint to the notion the team had just allowed RBNY to pick its pocket:

You just dropped a potential starting center-back in the lap of a conference rival at a time when that rival was in no great position to be picky and all you got in exchange was a fourth-round pick, Orlando. Maybe just take your medicine and keep quiet; there will be better days ahead.

Need another reason to like this deal? Tarek is versatile: regarded as a center-back in his season-long stint with Orlando, he was an attacking player in his youth, and is also capable of filling in at full-back. We’ll have to wait until pre-season to see how the Red Bulls think he fits their system. We can assume he’s most likely to be deployed as a center-back, but it’s nice to think he provides options, and Denis Hamlett seems to think Tarek will provide options. As he stated in RBNY’s official announcement of the trade:

He is a versatile defender with experience both in MLS and abroad, and he has qualities that we like.

Versatility is a quality the Red Bulls like very much indeed, especially in a squad that could use cover across the back-line. Utility-back Connor Lade might finally have some competition for his role as RBNY’s Swiss Army knife.

It’s not all good news. Tarek is fleeing Orlando’s bottom-of-the-Eastern-Conference 2018. The defense he lined up for last season was trash: 74 goals conceded - the most goals against in the league.

Also, his career to date has been mostly trying and failing to crack a first-team lineup outside Egypt. He’s played for the reserve teams of Freiburg and Wolfsburg; in 2016, Betis loaned him to Columbus Crew, and he managed just two minutes in MLS before being cut at the beginning of May - and then Betis cancelled his contract after one year of a four-year deal. He’s had solid stints with El Gouna, ENPPI, and Wadi Degla in Egypt, but until last year’s run of games with Orlando, he hadn’t really found his way into a first-team starting lineup outside the Egyptian Premier League.

Still, The Mane Land is a little sad to see him go:

Tarek wasn’t costly, was good with his feet — making him suitable for either a four- or three-man back line — and had good pace for a center back.

Our friends on the Orlando beat also note that Tarek is US-born and therefore does not occupy an international roster spot (which Hassan Ndam did). More flexibility for Hamlett’s squad-building.

Under normal circumstances, Tarek would be a promising addition to the squad, albeit one who needs to prove he can be better than good for a bad MLS defense, and better than OK outside Egypt. Under the specific circumstances RBNY found itself struggling with around 2:30 pm on December 11, 2018, Tarek’s signing was a master-stroke. Timing is generally the least important aspect of a trade: it’s what the player does on the field that counts. But in this case, the timing was everything. If Tarek also delivers on the pitch, he may prove to be not just RBNY’s first signing of the 2019 season, but also its best.