There was a strange and wonderful occurrence this weekend in the Belgian First Division. Not one, not two, but three former New York Red Bulls started in defense for RSC Anderlecht in a 1-0 victory over Royal Antwerp. It is perhaps the first time that a foreign club featured as many ex-New York players on the field at the same time, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere for the foreseeable future.
The star attraction, Michael Amir Murillo (2017-2019), continues to dominate on the right side. The backline was anchored by the hero-for-hire, Matt Miazga (2013-2015) on season-long loan from Chelsea. However, it was the prodigal left back, Kemar Lawrence (2015-2019), who generated the headlines with his play after returning from a long layoff. There was also a fourth player, Belgian-Haitian defender Hannes Delcroix, but he’s not relevant to this website’s purview.
The Jamaican made his season debut after an extended excused break away from the club following the death of his brother. Questions were in the air as to whether he would be in shape upon returning from both the covid-19 lockdown and his absence. As he has done time and time again, Lawrence silenced all doubters with an unyielding work rate and composed play on the ball. Manager Vincent Kompany was effusive in his post-game praise, referring to the “vocal” performance as “important” and claiming that it came “from the heart.”
“I’m tired but it’s a good win,” the 28-year-old told Les Sports after the match. “It’s good to keep the shutout. I’m happy to be back. I was a little angry because I didn’t want to go out, especially at 0-0. I just had a few cramps so I wanted to stay on the pitch. The staff believed in me and I’m here to prove what I’m worth. It’s easier to communicate with players I’ve known in MLS.”
Prove his worth he did, but will it be enough to stick around? Lawrence only received this start against Antwerp after regular left back Bogdan Mykhaylichenko tested positive for coronavirus. The 23-year-old Ukrainian has locked down the position since arriving over the summer, hoovering up every available minute and garnering headlines for being a perfect fit.
It’s possible either the club or the player is looking to facilitate an exit from Belgium. The 28-year-old Kingston native was recently linked with a failed move to FC Cincinnati, as reported by the incomparable Tom Bogert. Wherever the future takes him, returning to the field and performing at his usual level is a step in the right direction.
As for Miazga, the move to Belgium represents the chance to find a more permanent home. After leaving the Red Bulls for Chelsea in 2016, he’s been a regular member of the West London loan army, switching from Vitesse to Nantes to Reading and now Anderlecht. Shortly after arriving, the 25-year-old seamlessly entered into the starting lineup, starting three consecutive matches. The Belgian giants were excited for Miazga’s arrival due to his combination of size, pace, and technique.
Although it seems like it was only yesterday that the Homegrown player was debuting in MLS, he’s no longer a prospect brimming with potential and is now expected to perform at the level of an experienced professional. Damien Perrinelle had a hand in helping his former center back partner grow and mature. He talked to Les Sports, explaining that the former Red Bull “had to be guided tactically” and occasionally calmed down by the veteran. This might finally be the right club for Miazga, but at the very least it is already shaping up to be one of the most successful stops in his career.
In contrast with his former and current teammates, Murillo’s transfer to Anderlecht remains a complete success as he starts every match and impresses. The club is pointing to him as validation of its new scouting and data-driven transfer policies, attempting to uncover underrated talents at a relatively inexpensive price. Their intelligent purchase, undoubtedly aided by a possibly too acquiescent Red Bulls’ front office, will soon yield an even greater windfall in return. The Panamanian fullback was already attracting transfer interest over the spring, but he opted to remain at the club in hopes of playing in the UEFA Champions League. If his high-level performances continue, then it’s unlikely his stay in Belgium will last much longer with English and Spanish clubs reportedly banging on the door.
The casual MLS observer might be surprised by Murillo’s positive impact on Anderlecht. He was largely relegated to the bench by the end of his Red Bulls tenure, replaced in favor of a highly praised “lockdown” defender who is no longer with the club. He signed with the intent of using the club as a “springboard to go to Europe” viewing New York as “the ideal portal to get into [Salzburg or Leipzig].” Despite his assumption there were plans in place, the eventual synergy transfer was never discussed and instead he was brought to Anderlecht’s attention by Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips. It appears Red Bull’s loss was the Belgian club’s gain, especially with a significantly larger payout on the horizon.
As Murillo continues onward and upward, procurers will attempt to secure his services, but the more shrewd prospectors will venture toward the earlier source in an attempt to replicate his success. The United States is now viewed as a source for reasonably priced talent, a place where those that are ahead of the curve can find a market inefficiency begging for exploitation. The Red Bulls and its players will only benefit from increased attention following the success of previous transfers. “It is logical that European clubs are interested [in MLS players], especially because the prices are still affordable” said another former Anderlecht and Red Bulls player, Sacha Kljestan. “I also played with Kemar Lawrence and Amir Murillo, two excellent players. Anderlecht have seen that [work out] well.”
Unsurprisingly, the club was chasing Philadelphia Union star Brenden Aaronson but ultimately lost out to Red Bull Salzburg, an organization whose talent identification is beyond reproach. After many years of unfulfilled promises, it appears the switch has finally been flipped. The tipping point has been reached. MLS is no longer viewed as a soccer backwater by the global market. The alarm bell is blaring a tune alerting the world that three former players from a single location were on the field at the same time for a prominent European club.
The Red Bulls have built a successful transfer strategy that identifies players capable of moving onto greener pastures. There have been some missteps and failures, but the successful results should sustain belief in the system’s viability, despite not having the resources of Red Bull Salzburg or RB Leipzig. As the years progress, American soccer will continue to develop into a more viable source for acquisitions. The number of moves abroad will steadily increase, rendering the wonder and excitement of European transfers into a perfunctory ritual repeated every window.
In the short term, depending on the length of Mykhaylichenko’s quarantine, the Red Bulls’ revival band might have one more match together. With only two points separating first and sixth place, Anderlecht faces off against Gent on Sunday, November 8th with the potential to jump to the top of the table. After that, Lawrence will head to the bench for an undetermined amount of time, possibly having made his final appearance in Belgium. Regardless of what the future holds, he has proven that his fitness level and technical ability belong in a top European league, and it was done alongside two former teammates.
This simple Anderlecht match will be largely overlooked and forgotten by history, a footnote sourcing an obscure trivia question that will likely never be asked. But it’s one that you’ll be able to answer.