In August, the New York Red Bulls made a trade sending Homegrown contract midfielder Alex Muyl to Nashville SC in exchange for an international roster slot for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The 25-year-old academy product was thoroughly on the outs, making only two substitute appearances this season before the move. In a new locale, the Manhattan-born winger has been a key player down the stretch, starting 13 matches for the playoff-bound expansion club and delivering the vintage intelligent play that first enchanted Jesse Marsch. To give away such a valuable player requires due compensation, which the Red Bulls received.
In Major League Soccer the international roster slot is perhaps the most valuable of assets, with a limited number assigned to each team. While some front offices opt to rely on domestic players, the Red Bulls’ sophisticated system necessitates a worldwide hunt for suitable talent capable of performing in the high press. Major League Soccer designates 192 in total, creating a finite resource in a supply-and-demand market which takes on increasing value as the season progresses. The Red Bulls’ acquisition of a permanent international slot from the Houston Dynamo in 2009 is routinely referred to as perhaps the shrewdest heist in the history of American soccer.
Roster flexibility can be difficult to achieve under the league’s strict parameters. Head of sport Kevin Thelwell acquired one of these valuable international spots for both 2020 and 2021, demonstrating a keen understanding and appreciation of successful team building. But why didn’t he use this hard-won aegis?
The MLS transfer window slammed shut on October 29th, an extension enacted due to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. As expected in the midst of a complete paucity of transfer rumors, the Red Bulls did not make a move at the deadline. The team appeared to have ended its foreign transfer business in August with the additions of Samuel Tetteh and Dru Yearwood, both of whom were announced before the departure of Muyl. While the roster possesses overlooked depth that has been thoroughly utilized by interim manager Bradley Carnell, the squad cannot be described as even resembling unimpeachable or complete.
The striker core has been lacking in production and could use an upgrade. The goalkeeper platoon is prone to injury and would have benefitted from an emergency veteran back-up in case the unthinkable happens during the playoffs. Perhaps the club could have signed a player or two on a short-term deal with the objective of a tryout, kicking the tires on riskier projects to determine long-term fit, similar to the current situation of Tetteh on loan from Salzburg. This is, of course, fanciful speculation from far outside of the front office and sporting industry, but the point remains that the Red Bulls roster is not without its holes where improvement or more competition would be welcome.
The recent hiring of new manager Gerhard Struber subdues any desire to make immediate changes to the roster. Setting him up for long-term success with his desired acquisitions should be the priority. The Austrian has yet to set foot in America and likely is unable to make a full assessment of his needs and desires for specific players. As Thelwell shared on The Molineux View podcast this past summer, the former Wolverhampton sporting director prefers to work closely with his manager on scouting and acquisition, presenting a few options for approval before pursuing a signing.
The Red Bulls’ head of sport has revealed himself to be a man with a plan, one who has already made public his practice of keeping a shortlist of well-researched managers in the event of needing an unexpected appointment. Extending his composed methodology to the transfer market doesn’t lend itself to panic buys and saddling a new hire with players before he’s attended his first training session. At Wolverhampton, Thelwell wasn’t opposed to making moves late in the window, notably signing Adama Traoré for £18 million pounds before the summer 2018 window closed, but that was with an established manager and clearly defined tactical roles in place.
Those expecting New York to engage in the drama of Deadline Day are ignoring the club’s recent history. Perhaps due to the inherent MLS tedium involved in any move, the Red Bulls rarely enter into significant incoming player negotiations late in the window, with the latest end-of-window business being Josh Sims’ first loan and the promotion of Tom Barlow to the first-team. While decidedly more straight-to-DVD and indie drama than blockbuster, low-risk moves in that same vein might have been available this season, but relying on such transfers is rarely the sign of a composed and assertive front office.
There’s also the reality that as the season drew further and further along, any player signed past mid-September might not even appear for the club in 2020. There’s immigration requirements, a mandatory nine-to-ten day covid-19 quarantine, and the sometimes weeks a new signing can take to adjust to the Red Bulls’ exacting fitness and tactical standards. Not wanting to add a new piece in the midst of a season determined to be quite unusual both inside and outside of the club is hardly blameworthy, although waiting for a reset does begin to resemble the familiar and eternal refrain of looking ahead to the next transfer window.
The decision to hold back on adding more weapons to the team appears to be a conscious choice, which should be a source of solace to those viewing transfer activity as the steady beeping of the club’s heart monitor. The turmoil of the traditional firing-interim-hiring-wait-for-the-immigration-papers period is hardly the appropriate time to be adding major pieces outside of an academy player, but that could lack the maverick vision and creativity sometimes putting a team over the top in a season when eternal glory looks increasingly up for grabs.
Actions will always take precedence over words when judging intent. Despite the summer swoon in the last gasps of a pre-deposed monarch’s reign, the club jumped into the playoff picture and is growing into more of a threat to capture MLS Cup with every passing match. The cupboard is hardly bare, as Thelwell and head of scouting Paul Fernie masterminded several successful international signings over the past season. Despite having two-and-a-half months to make a move, leaving space open creates flexibility for the new manager’s expected roster overhaul. Obviously, the club isn’t punting on this season, but it’s fair to note that everything possible wasn’t done to strengthen the roster for 2020.
But at the end of the day. valuable international roster slot has gone unused since its procurement in August. While the move made in haste to save for the future was worth the effort to acquire the valuable spot for next season, the unused space on the current squad merely served to raise hopes of an incoming signing that never came to pass. Before seeing next season’s eventual transfer, the only current tangible outcome from August’s trade is that a potential playoff opponent was strengthened with a player from the Red Bulls Academy.
To paraphrase Red from The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess I just miss my Muyl.”