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Patience rewarded for Barlow and Duncan, whose time to shine is now

A season of literal up and down, between first and second team, is falling into place for two players.

MLS: U.S. Open-New England Revolution at New York Red Bulls
Tom Barlow is one half of a pair that has emerged into the starting 11 after a transient start with the first team.
Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

HANOVER, N.J. – Before Tom Barlow could dunk on Atlanta United at Red Bull Arena, future Washington Wizards all-star Bradley Beal dunked on him at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis.

Barlow and Beal had not said a word to each other since their paths diverged, as Beal became National Player of the Year at Florida and a lucrative star in the NBA, but their St. Louis bond was never broken. Despite all the fame and fortune, Beal could not hold in his excitement when the person he remembered as a freshman soccer star in high school scored on Sunday night for the New York Red Bulls.

It’s hard not to feel thrilled about Barlow, one of two players who, after splitting time between Red Bulls II and the senior team in 2019, is making the most of a late-season run in the first team starting 11.

“Probably, three things,” Chris Armas says, when asked what he has seen different from Barlow in this recent stretch compared to earlier in the season.

“An understanding of defending and pressing, confidence, and his hold-up play. He’s always shown to be a guy that works hard and runs a lot and commits to the team. But, I think he’s taken a real step forward tactically. And when you put a guy that’s all-in with the team, sprinkle some confidence, I think that’s the difference.”

Bradley Wright-Phillips continues to manage a groin injury that has limited him since April. On Friday, he was not training on the field, instead doing individual work inside – maintenance, per se.

Brian White, meanwhile, appeared despondent as he walked off the training field on Friday, as he still recovers from a high ankle sprain sustained against the New England Revolution on Aug. 17, an injury that derailed a breakthrough MLS campaign. With only two matches remaining in the regular season, the clock is ticking for him to return.

Though the factors leading to it are not what Barlow would have wished for, the forward spot is now his. On a pleasant afternoon, the 24-year-old from St. Louis is one of the last players to walk off the training field, taking shot after shot, like he wants to relish every second of his current situation.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
Tom Barlow modestly shrugs after his 32nd minute goal on Sunday that put the Red Bulls ahead, 1-0.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Another player with a twinkle in his eye and skip in his step is right back Kyle Duncan. He, too, stays late on the training field, having seemingly locked down a position that was in flux all season.

He was out of the lineup for two months but never out of the picture, gaining valuable experience with Red Bulls II and the United States under-23s. When the 22-year-old from Brooklyn finally got his opportunity in Portland on Sept. 18, with the season on life support, he provided the spark that had been missing.

Not only did he rifle in a third minute goal that began the Red Bulls’ best performance in some time, but he recognized an opportunity in second half stoppage time to go forward and clinch a valuable road win.

“I think, in regards to the assist, it’s just a tactic that we have, like, forechecking,” Duncan said. “That’s one tactic that we stick to, and I just saw the chance to get the ball from a short pass and get forward.”

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Portland Timbers
Kyle Duncan (left) spurs on his teammates after his third minute goal in Portland.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It was essentially a playoff-clinching performance for the Red Bulls, whose 10th straight postseason ticket was booked before their next match.

In a season with unforeseen early and midseason adversity, the reasons for hope are also coming from, in some ways, unexpected sources. After the uproar following a home defeat to the Colorado Rapids on Aug. 31, no one could have predicted the table would be set as it is ahead of a regular season home finale against D.C. United on Sunday.

And yet, here the Red Bulls are, continuing to pull rabbits out of their hat.