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Which Red Bulls II players will shine in the Struber era?

The Austrian’s background in the Red Bull system could mean fresh opportunities soon for New York’s top reserves

SOCCER: OCT 18 MLS - Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“When you lose your head coach, it’s now everyone playing for their jobs,” Tim Parker said after the New York Red Bulls’ 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union in September.

Parker was right, especially with Gerhard Struber coming in as the New York Red Bulls’ new head coach. With the team rotating the roster and evaluating talent while waiting for Struber’s full installation, everyone is back on the starting line in the race for a roster spot. While it’s expected that Struber will demand senior signings of his preference this offseason, his background adhering to the Red Bull football ethos (including a stint in charge of Salzburg’s reserve team FC Liefering) means he might take a long look at some of the best young players in the New York’s USL reserve team.

With the six-to-eight week wait for the new manager getting shorter and shorter, we looked at how some of the best Red Bulls II prospects in USL could potentially fit into Struber’s first team next year.

Caden Clark

SOCCER: OCT 18 MLS - Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By now, we all know about the 17-year-old Minnesota native who has blasted his name onto the tongue tips of fans locally and nationally with his goals in the last two weeks. But Caden Clark’s young career has the chance to reach high levels of production and responsibility under Struber’s setup.

Academy director Sean McCafferty brought Clark over to New York from the Barcelona Residency Academy in Arizona because he knew he could fit into this intense style of play. He showed he could at the USL level, but now he must transition to the MLS level under a coach whose pressing scheme is arguably more aggressive than Jesse Marsch’s tactics.

Struber’s 10, regardless of whether he played in a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 diamond midfield, was more of a role player that helped cause overloads and pin the opposition to one side of the field. Clark’s work rate fits that bill and while the quality of his defensive actions need improvement, his natural willingness and desire to win back the ball are intangible qualities Struber will value.

The concern lies in how much freedom Clark will have to create opportunities for his teammates on the ball. Struber’s sides create opportunities in quick transitions that don’t often filter through the advanced midfielder like Clark is used to.

However, this gives Struber an opportunity to diversify the Red Bulls’ offensive approach. Clark gives the team a dynamic focal point in attack that can thread the needle in tight spaces, disguise entry passes and connect with teammates through quick combinations. His ability to cover ground also makes him an option as one of the wide midfielders in Struber’s diamond, allowing him to potentially see more of the ball and play the incisive passes he’s capable of making.

He’s capable of hitting that final ball in transition, but can Struber also utilize his skill set in possession when they play teams who bunker into deep defensive shells? Clark could be one of the key pieces to solving this issue that’s plagued the team since adopting their pressing system.

Omar Sowe and Jake LaCava

North Carolina FC v New York Red Bulls II
Red Bulls II forward Jake LaCava
Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Struber prefers to play with two strikers leading his offense. With Sowe and LaCava providing Red Bulls II with goals for the most part of this past USL season, there’s potential for a partnership to grow between the young forwards under a new head coach.

At Barnsley, Jacob Brown and Conor Chaplin triggered the team’s press when they moved in on their same-sided opposing center back. The Red Bulls’ current group of forwards have young enough legs to provide that same level of energy, but not all of them already have a developed concept of the angles they need to approach center backs from to press efficiently.

LaCava possesses that natural pressing awareness as the center forward or on the wing. Playing as a wide forward for Red Bulls II this season benefits him in the long run as both Brown and Chaplin pressed the center backs when they received the ball in the half-spaces. LaCava forced players to continue their ball progression out wide with his press, pushing the ball into an overloaded flank where the winger or full back is forced into a turnover under pressure.

Sowe will learn the schematics for pressing with time, but his primary assets to the forward position are his killer instincts in front of goal and his physique. Struber needs forwards who are going to be in the right spots at the right times for the Red Bulls to play this direct, transitional style well and Sowe provides that in abundance. His strength to ride challenges or receive the ball with his back to goal are going to be essential as well against teams who sit deep and don’t allow him the space he needs to run in behind or move around in the box.

Kenan Hot

Hot could fit in nicely as one of the wide center midfielders in Struber’s midfield diamond or at the base of his five-man midfield. He’s a tenacious tackler who doesn’t shy away from pressing opponents and possesses quick feet to work his way out of tight spaces.

All of these were essential characteristics Luke Thomas, Alex Mowatt and Callum Styles possessed during Struber’s time at Barnsley. As one of the box-to-box midfielders of this system, Hot needs to be able to apply instantaneous pressure out wide when the forwards force the opposition to play up the channel. He did well this season for Red Bulls II to snap at the heels of his opponents almost immediately after they received the ball.

His ball control then plays an essential role in the Red Bulls’ transition after winning back possession. Hot either needs to play a quickly released ball into one of his more advanced teammates or dribble out of the congested flank and into the space centrally. He has an eye for spotting the space in behind defensive lines and the technique to find his teammates’ runs with chipped balls over the top, it’s now a matter of putting all of those together at a quicker pace.

His skill set would thrive most in Struber’s 3-5-2 as it puts more of the responsibility to maintain the wide press on the wing backs rather than the midfielders. Barnsley’s midfielders also tended to have more freedom to hold possession and pick out passes in this shape which Hot will need until he can begin to play at the speed Struber needs from his center midfielders.

John Tolkin

Tolkin, already on a first team contract, is a very direct full back. Struber is going to love having him as an option off the bench or in rotation regardless of whether he decides to play with wing backs or a four-man back line.

Direct can often be misinterpreted as a synonyms for the “kick-and-run” style of play or a player that constantly goes at defenders, but Tolkin plays direct in the sense that his passes and movement are good decisions that help the Red Bulls move up the field. His actions are mad with confidence and purpose which – along with his technical ability – is why he’s often seen time playing in central midfield at times for Red Bulls II.

He can play one-time passes immediately after winning the ball back or hit long diagonals into one of his forwards from wide positions. His passing range is impressive for a player whose position often prefers simplistic passing combinations or crosses. However, this provides Struber with yet another player with the technical quality to play and think quickly in quick transitional moments after his side win the ball back in wide spaces.

Tolkin’s defending can be a bit suspect at times though, and that will hinder him from really asserting the starting left back role as his own until he can iron out those wrinkles. The 3-5-2 gives him more coverage in the space he leaves open on the flank and the shifting defensive midfielder in the 4-4-2 diamond midfield will also cover that area, but he can’t afford to rely on his teammates to pick up his defensive slack for the majority of a match.