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Do the New York Red Bulls need a good immigration lawyer?

Announce some green cards and make this question go away, RBNY.

New York Red Bulls v Sporting Kansas City: Final - 2017 U.S. Open Cup Photo by Kevin Sabitus/New York Red Bulls via Getty Images

The New York Red Bulls waived Muhamed Keita on Saturday, February 3. This was somewhat surprising because the team had only signed him at the end of last July.

There will be some in Poland and Norway - where Keita played before arriving at RBNY - who will greet the news of the player’s exit from his latest club with a knowing nod and an “I-told-you-so”. Keita did not disguise the fact he wasn’t happy at Lech Poznan, the Polish team he left for the Red Bulls. And in a public spat with a fellow player in Norway, Keita was tagged as a nomadic misfit. Mjondalen midfielder Christian Gauseth told VG:

My job is to perform the tactics. It’s an attitude that Muhamed Keita could have thought about in many of the clubs he has been.


I have a lot more fun at football than Muhamed Keita. He is prepared to go around and be hurt, report cool things and change club every six months while I’m doing football.

(Keita’s reply was memorable too: “If [Gauseth] is so good at football, why is he still on the farmland in Mjondalen and picking potatoes?”)

It was no secret that Keita hadn’t settled in Poland and wasn’t having much luck finding his way back home to Norway. Lech Poznan loaned him out to a succession of Norwegian clubs without finding one willing to take Keita on permanently. The move to RBNY was presented as - if anything - a bit of a steal. A highly-rated player once thought to have a bright future in European soccer had found his career stalling, and the Red Bulls had swooped in touting a connection to a former coach who Keita remembered fondly. As he told MSG’s Red Bulls Insider Kristian Dyer:

...The catch here is that the coaches and the coaching staff know Bob [Bradley] really well and the way that they work is similar. Then I said, ‘OK, let’s get this done.’ And I know the way he works and the way it works here. They work 100 percent – the whole team. I fit in perfectly.

Keita played for Bob Bradley at Stabaek in 2015. Keita liked Bradley. Bradley liked Keita. RBNY’s head coach and sporting director - Jesse Marsch and Denis Hamlett - cut their teeth in MLS when Bradley was coaching Chicago Fire. Not for the first time, it appeared the personal networks of RBNY’s current leadership had directed them to an overlooked gem.

As a mid-summer signing, it was assumed Keita would be unlikely to make an immediate impact on RBNY’s fortunes. And so it proved to be: he made seven appearances in all competitions for the Red Bulls in 2017, dishing out one assist. This season was supposed to be his time to shine, but he’ll have to make the best of 2018 somewhere other than RBNY.

When a player’s time at a club is cut short, it’s generally a sign that things didn’t work out as planned. No transfer is made without some optimism from both team and player that the move will be a success. Keita arrived with sufficient reputation, salary (RBNY was thought to be paying him around $250,000 in 2017, per the MLS Players Association) and versatility to be reasonably expected to be a first-team starter for the Red Bulls once he had settled in. Clearly, that didn’t work out.

Tempting as it is to assume RBNY simply found Keita to be good but not good enough, since that seems to have been Keita’s story since 2014, it is not the reason given for his premature departure from the Red Bulls squad.

Kristian Dyer tipped Keita’s exit, describing a “numbers crunch” as the reason the player was to be released:

This was subsequently confirmed and expanded upon by NBC Sports’ Pro Soccer Talk:

On Friday night, Metro reporter Kristian Dyer reported that the Red Bulls were set to release midfielder Muhamed Keita.

PST has been able to confirm that the additions of Casseres Jr. and Red Bull Salzburg midfielder Marc Rzatkowski put the Red Bulls in a tight situation with their international roster spots, leaving the team with the decision to let Keita leave.

It would appear the Red Bulls traded their way into a roster problem. At the very least, it would appear that some sources would prefer that the Red Bulls be judged to have created a roster problem for themselves rather than be thought to have faulty scouting instincts.

And it’s not hard to believe that Keita was let go because RBNY had traded itself into a traffic jam. It is thought the Red Bulls have nine international roster spots: the eight allocated to each club by MLS, and one they acquired permanently via trade with Houston Dynamo. International roster spots are tradeable and MLS rules seem to be endlessly flexible, so RBNY may have more, may have less - but we have no information to suggest that the team has any greater or fewer than nine slots on its first-team roster for international players.

Currently, the RBNY roster shows 11 international players: Anatole Abang, Vincent Bezecourt, Cristian Casseres, Aurelien Collin, Fidel Escobar, Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo, Hassan Ndam, Daniel Royer, Florian Valot, and Marc Rzatkowski. Easy to see why Keita had to go: eleven is a greater number than nine, and he was boosting the team’s international contingent to 12. Add the fact that another international, Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, is almost certainly joining the squad in this transfer window - and clearly something had to give.

Even accounting for the fact that Anatole Abang (exiled to Romania) doesn’t count, and Keita is now departed, the Red Bulls still look to have a problem with international slots. When Kaku is announced, he’ll presumably be the eleventh international player on RBNY’s active first-team roster. More trading would appear to be inevitable.

The Red Bulls, of course, know exactly who they want to sign and how many international roster spots they have or might need. If the current surplus of international players is a problem, it’s a problem RBNY created for itself with its eyes wide open - and it is fair to assume that the solution will be just as deliberate.

Fortunately, solutions abound. Beyond more cuts or trades, RBNY can loan a player down to its USL team for the season, thereby freeing up a roster spot. A season-ending injury to the right player might fortuitously free up a spot also. And there’s always the possibility of sending another on loan to a completely different team. This, of course, is what the Red Bulls did last year: top draft pick Zeiko Lewis (Bermudian) was loaned down to USL; defender Gideon Baah (Ghanaian) was put on the injured reserve list; Anatole Abang (Cameroonian) was left in exile - three international spots were freed up via three different mechanisms, none of which entailed actually cutting a player, though all were lost to RBNY for 2017.

As it happens, not one of those three players will contribute to RBNY in 2018, so perhaps simply cutting a surplus international is the smarter move. But the Red Bulls have already cut into the bone of the roster by releasing Keita: he was a projected starter, albeit one about to be replaced in the squad by another attacking international player, Kaku.

If RBNY releases any more of its internationals...well, who to pick? Collin, Lawrence, Murillo, and Royer are considered first-choice starters. Escobar was only signed last season and is expected to challenge for a regular start this year. Ndam is a long-term project, and still a teenager. Casseres and Rzatkowski have just arrived. Bezecourt and Valot were promoted from the reserves to the first team in the off-season, and have effectively just arrived also.

One of those players (Ndam seems the likeliest candidate) could - probably will - be sent to the II team in USL on a season-long loan. That will still leave one that has to go, and the choice will be between a nominal starter (Collin, Lawrence, Murillo, Royer, and Escobar) or someone who was only recently signed (the rest). If every “big splash” signing necessitates the departure of a player assumed to be in RBNY’s plans for 2018 the team doesn’t look stronger on paper, just different.

And since this is the second off-season in a row where the Red Bulls look to be having to move quickly to navigate an international-player traffic jam, it seems fair to wonder whether there might be another way to ease the burden on the team’s international roster spots without sacrificing squad depth.

What’s that? There is?

Seattle Sounders recently announced that one of its international stars is international no longer: Nicolas Lodeiro has a green card. Naturalization is a tried and tested solution to the international-roster spot issue in MLS, albeit one teams don’t entirely control. RBNY, for example, has seen UK-national Bradley Wright-Phillips acquire a green card and remove himself from the team’s international-spot conundrum.

All teams in MLS have the option of going the green-card route, though some are more aggressive and enthusiastic about it than others. Over at Atlanta United, for example, it seems to be a clear policy. For its inaugural season, Atlanta over-loaded with internationals, and then started methodically naturalizing players. Kenwyne Jones and Chris McCann had green cards before the start of the 2017 season. Tito Villalba just got one. And the club says it’s working on getting a few more.

This would seem to be a sensible approach for a team that likes shopping in the international market for players. It allows the squad to be built a little more smoothly, without having to hastily jettison a new signing because a brighter option has come along. All situations are not created equal, but indulge a slightly unfair comparison: in July, 2016, Atlanta signed Chris McCann - who is Irish - and by February, 2017, he had a green card; in July, 2017, RBNY signed Norwegian Muhamed Keita, and by February, 2018, he was cut because (it is suggested) the club ran out of international roster spots. Both Atlanta and RBNY will be parading shiny new Argentine attackers in 2018, as it happens; one of those teams isn’t painting itself into a corner as it goes.

The Red Bulls might well announce a few new green cards in the squad over the next few days, and that would be a laudable development. But until it does, and since it has now faced the same international-roster spot problem for two consecutive off-seasons, it does seem fair to suggest RBNY is missing a trick.

Another spurious comparison: Nicolas Lodeiro joined Seattle in July, 2016, and 18 months later, he has a green card. Do the Red Bulls have any comparable candidates on their roster?

Forget Aurelien Collin, he is an international player by choice. Rzatkowski is only on loan from Salzburg and just arrived anyway, so rule him out. Likewise, Casseres has only recently landed in the US. Escobar, Murillo, and Ndam joined the team last year, so let’s call Atlanta’s work with McCann a clear exception and say they haven’t been with RBNY long enough to really be considered. But Daniel Royer was signed in the summer of 2016; Vincent Bezecourt and Florian Valot both signed pro contracts with RBNY II in USL in 2016; Kemar Lawrence has been with RBNY since March 2015: that’s four players who have been working for the Red Bulls for as long, or longer, than Lodeiro has been with the Sounders.

The Red Bulls don’t make immigration law, and there may be very good reasons why they have not (yet) secured green cards for constant starters like Lawrence and Royer - it’s not really up to RBNY to decide who qualifies for a residency visa.

But with teams like Atlanta and Seattle clearly working aggressively to free up international roster spots without weakening their squad, the news that RBNY has cut a prospective starter because it ran out of roster space seems a little inadequate. And if there are more cuts to the international players on the first team once Kaku is signed, the excuse will wear even more thin.

The Red Bulls know who they want to sign, they know the MLS regulations. Better solutions than “oops, we ran out of room” are available and being actively exploited by rival teams around the league. When RBNY appears to release players prematurely due to roster-compliance issues, while also appearing to ignore an increasingly well-used solution - well, it seems fair to ask why. Do you need the number of good immigration lawyer, RBNY?