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Outside backs on the outs

The churn at fullback and what it says about RBNY’s management picture

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MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This past Saturday night in Tucson, Patrick Seagrist became the next to go in the churn. Many followers of Red Bull fan discourse will be familiar with the term for the incessant turnover of players and staff that for years has defined the Red Bull technical outlook for better or worse. Constant waves of new young players are signed with mutually beneficial exit plans in mind, with a stream of replacements from above, below and within the global scouting and development network ready to re-fill the barrel for more churning.

Seagrist, a lanky Marquette University product who sporting director Denis Hamlett traded up to select in the SuperDraft put in a quietly impressive 90 minutes at left back in a friendly against Houston, thus becoming the latest hope for an RBNY fullback corps that has been churning harder and more chaotically than even the most sycophantic Red Bull adherents have come to expect. After an offseason of significant upheaval, it is unclear what the depth chart looks like on either side of the team’s defense and predicting Chris Armas’ preferences has proven to be a confounding exercise.

At the moment when Jesse Marsch drove off into the Teutonic sunset in summer 2018, the strength of the team’s fullback depth chart was a crucial pillar of the team’s balance on and off the field. In addition to his buccaneering forays into the final third, Kemar Lawrence’s racing recovery tackles were a crucial and inspirational safety net in RBNY’s stretched defensive scheme. On the right side Michael Amir Murillo contrasted as a languid release valve for Red Bulls’ high octane system under Marsch, one of the few players in the side capable of holding and carrying the ball in moments of pressure on the back line.

Regularly selected for their national teams as well as league honors, these elite MLS-level talents were both easily recruited - Lawrence had been a preseason trialist in Marsch’s first year while Murillo was a loan-and-sign from Panamanian challengers San Francisco - and on bargain rate wages (only $450k combined in base pay for 2019), providing a crucial building block for the team’s salary budget as well as its on-field cohesion.

But at almost the moment that Chris Armas was promoted to head coach - under the rationale of continuity from the Marsch administration - this enviable building block of the team’s preceding success began to crumble. Early signs of trouble began when Murillo returned from his month at the World Cup in Russia, where he was considered by many observers to be one of the few bright lights in an otherwise dim performance in the tournament by Panama.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Murillo, who had left for international duty when Marsch was still at the helm, was intuitively replaced in the lineup by veteran utility man Connor Lade. While the local favorite Lade served with his usual commitment and nous in his backup role, his physical and technical limitations were visible especially in the context of a season in which RBNY had been pushing the tactical envelope with Murillo in the side. This made it all the more stark when Armas continued to deploy Lade following the World Cup, with Murillo in the squad but on the bench in crucial matches against NYCFC and Kansas City. Murillo had no reported injuries at this time, but some open flirtation with transfer interest from Europe as well as a physical altercation with Armas caught by television cameras at halftime of the season finale against Orlando painted an ominous picture of Murillo’s status in the new regime.

Kemar Lawrence’s trajectory under Armas is even more inscrutable. During the playoffs at the end of that 2018 shield-winning season Lawrence suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the doomed semi-final series against Atlanta. Initially disclosed by the club and player as a minor tweak, by the time RBNY regrouped in February for CONCACAF Champions League play it was clear there was more to Lawrence’s condition. Lawrence was in the starting lineup for the opener against Pantoja in the Dominican Republic before being substituted at the half that the club described as precautionary. Lawrence would then disappear from the matchday squad for over a month despite not being listed in official injury reports and cryptic comments from Armas stating that Lawrence was “back to his old self, putting fear in everyone” during training sessions. Lawrence even played a friendly match for the Jamaican national team before finally returning to the RBNY lineup card at the end of March, when he publicly claimed he had felt healthy the whole time and was held off the pitch by Armas and the coaching staff.

MLS: Montreal Impact at New York Red Bulls Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The rest of the 2019 would prove even more messy as the fracturing of the fullback status quo correlated with the decline of the performances of the team as a whole. Kyle Duncan, the academy product who had shined in spot starts at right back before an early 2018 ACL tear, struggled in his rotational appearances upon returning. One of the more troubling flashpoints of Armas’ tenure thus far was a midweek home match against Vancouver in which Armas deployed the right-footed Duncan as a left back in order to rest Lawrence. Duncan struggled mightily, and after 45 minutes of confused defensive positioning and inept attempts to cross and shoot with his left foot, Armas switched Duncan to the right side after halftime in a tacit admission of how ill-advised his initial decision had been.

After spending the early months of the season incoherently rotating with Murillo and Lade, Duncan was banished to Red Bulls II in exchange for rookie draft pick Rece Buckmaster out of Indiana University. In a similar situation to the previous summer, Murillo returned from Gold Cup action with Panama to find Buckmaster as the preferred right back starter. Despite awkward claims by Armas that Buckmaster was a “lockdown outside back” in training, Buckmaster appeared outmatched in games against New England and LAFC (in which he conceded a decisive penalty).

By the time RBNY limped into the playoffs last autumn, Armas’ right back depth chart was arguably the most disheveled area of a team whose pecking order had become unclear all over the pitch. Buckmaster’s leash was finally tugged after a loss to Seattle, Connor Lade was in a polo shirt on gameday working with the club’s video crew, Kyle Duncan had returned from a summer in the reserves when not with U.S. youth national teams, and Amir Murillo was apparently in the doghouse making appearances in only one of the team’s last four matches and being scratched entirely for the playoff loss in Philadelphia.

MLS: MLS Cup Playoffs-Round One-New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason played out in a way that continue to bring scutiny on the coaching staff’s judgments. Lade’s unsurprising retirement was met with the ceremony of a decision that was clearly mutual, but the other veterans saw enigmatic ends to what had become clearly frayed relationships with the club. After his season of enigmatic absences Lawrence made a public transfer request that belittled the team’s prospects for the upcoming year. Despite a statement from Denis Hamlett that dismissed the complaints and said Lawrence was part of the team’s 2020 plans, Lawrence was sold to Belgian giants Anderlecht in January for $1.25 million. Anderlecht coincidentally was the same club that had paid another seven digit transfer for a different disgruntled RBNY fullback this offseason- the perennial Belgian champions having signed Amir Murillo in December for an incentives-based fee after a year in which Chris Armas had judged him to be less reliable than two hapless rookies and a brittle, half-retired veteran backup.

Even if you buy into the narratives presented by team staff (including anonymous sources assassinating Lawrence’s character) that both Lawrence and Murillo had become poor fits for the locker room atmosphere, none of it excuses the poor planning and personnel management that lead to the scenario that leaves Patrick Seagrist as the latest fodder for the churn that Armas and Hamlett have increasingly turned into a meat grinder. A more confident management team would have moved both Lawrence and Murillo onward to one of their many transfer suitors before allowing them to supposedly tank the 2019 season. A more resourceful management team would have made more constructive use of an existing replacement like Duncan who had performed well in a previous winning team. A more restrained and less desperate management team would have shown respect for the club’s heralded development pipeline by promoting a more settled and drilled reserve player like Guatemalan senior international Allen Yanes rather than fast-tracking and shell-shocking Buckmaster.

Going into 2020, the fullback situation remains unclear but undoubtedly in a worse situation than it was in when Armas began directing the locker room. Duncan is penciled in by most observers as the incumbent starting right back, a deserving position given Duncan’s proven talent from his pre-injury form in 2018 and perseverance to return to the XI during the challenging 2019 campaign. Meanwhile Seagrist appears to be the only left-footed defender in the first team orbit, with the short-lived Janos Loebe experiment having been abandoned following the Fordham product’s signing for Tampa Bay Rowdies. Going into the season depending on a 22-year old college rookie at a starting position is supposed to be the exact situation the churn is designed to avoid, but there is perhaps hope for the future on the other side of defense.

The only senior fullback signing made by Red Bulls this winter is covered in the fingerprints of new organizational leadership speculated to be taking a more hands on role in directing the team and its personnel decisions. In late January RBNY announced the signing of Mandela Egbo, a 22-year old Crystal Palace academy product who has spent the early part of his senior career as a fringe player at Bundesliga sides Borussia Monchengladbach and Darmstadt 98. Egbo surely has to have been a player on the radar of both RB Leipzig recruitment director Paul Mitchell and recently-hired RBNY head scout Paul Fernie, both Englishmen who have worked extensively in Germany.

Borussia Moenchengladbach v Preußen Münster - Friendly Match Photo by Christian Verheyen/Borussia Moenchengladbach via Getty Images

While Egbo has remained sidelined by visa paperwork and will likely take time to integrate with the team this season, his signing appears to signal the opening moves of a new leadership arrangement off the pitch in Harrison. The reported rise of Mitchell as global chief Ralf Rangnick’s right-hand man in recent years has been avidly followed by Red Bull aficionados especially in regards to the recent unraveling of matters in New York. With Mitchell’s likely involvement in the recruitment of Fernie as well as the installation of yet another Briton, Wolves technical director Kevin Thelwell, as RBNY’s new director of sport, a path forward appears to be clearing for a club whose grasp on personnel strategy has been entirely lost in a matter of 18 months.

Fullbacks, who rarely score and often peripheral to most team movements, are among the most anonymous and least-celebrated players in the sport. But any coach will tell you their thankless play grinding up and down the wing is often decisive in any hard-fought match. The fullback situation at Red Bull New York over the past few years has been a detailed lesson in the consequences of fullbacks and their constant churn both on and off the pitch.