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How to stop worrying and love Tom Barlow

The athletic but technically-limited forward has received mixed reviews since entering the Red Bulls first team but could be an unlikely favorite of new manager Gerhard Struber

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When $2 million Danish striker Mathias Jørgensen was loaned out by New York Red Bulls to AGF Aarhus last month, it not only asked further questions of the club’s transfer policy but also raised the heat of an already sweltering spotlight on incumbent starting striker Tom Barlow.

In just over a year the 25-year-old St Louis native has gone from a beaming success story of the club’s development pipeline and scorer of the dramatic winner in a 2019 victory over Atlanta to a lightning rod for criticism of the team’s inconsistent goalscoring form. But as New York approaches a pivotal 2021 season in which the club will be operating more precisely under the principles of Red Bull’s cutting edge European-honed approach to modern football than ever before, it could be an unlikely opportunity for a quintessential American soccer product to take on a key role.

Barlow became by all appearances a first-choice center forward in New York’s formation over the course of the pandemic-stuttered 2020 season. Following rotation minutes in the pre-COVID early season matches and the MLS is Back Tournament, Barlow became a locked-in starter by the time the team closed out the regular season under interim manager Bradley Carnell, even in the face of productive outings from depth chart competitor Brian White.

Curiously so, six of Barlow’s ten starts came in the eight regular season games that came after the hiring of new head coach Gerhard Struber. While Carnell remained in charge of the side in these games as Struber fulfilled visa and quarantine requirements, comments from sporting chief Kevin Thelwell that Struber was monitoring and providing some tactical advice during this intermediary period led to speculation that Barlow was favored by Struber or at the very least being used as a proxy for Struber’s preferred skillset in a striker.

In a common criticism leveled at players prominent in the Red Bull soccer program that Struber cut his professional teeth in, the case against Barlow is that he is all athleticism and no technique. The forward who jumped out to Jesse Marsch and Denis Hamlett in the lead-up to the 2018 SuperDraft is a physical powerhouse but has stood out for frequent missed chances in his recent run as a starter, several of which displayed glaring lack of various technical skills including one-touch finishing and shooting with the opposite foot.

SOCCER: NOV 08 MLS - Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls
Barlow’s hard running in the extremities of the field could be a key weapon in Gerhard Struber’s attack
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the moment of Jørgensen’s departure in December, criticism among Red Bulls fans and some press insinuated that the move was an example of the club settling for an inexpensive, unrefined player more valued for his hard running and low pay than the ostensible upside of a pedigreed foreign player. Indeed, the lack of transfer rumors around a senior center forward have been conspicuous so far in an offseason in which a striker was expected to be at the top of the club’s wish list. The longer this thread continues, the likelihood increases that the highly-credentialed coaching guru New York just hired happens to rate the former community and nonprofit leadership major at UW-Madison.

Barlow certainly fits the mold of Struber’s type of forward. Barlow’s ferocious nature in attack was given further emphasis during his rookie year with the USL reserve team in 2018 when he donned a plastic mask for much of the year following a facial injury. The 6’2” striker, while not necessarily quick, is capable of generating tremendous steam on the run in open space to go along with confrontational physical play in the air and the penalty box.

The (often two) center forwards in Struber’s system are expected to run the channels less in the hopes of receiving a killer pass but with the purpose of pushing the opposition defenders back and dragging them away from space where they could guard attacking midfielders. Barlow would not only be adept at using his athleticism to make these breakthrough runs and shield dumps into the corner, but also provide an intimidating force on the other side of the ball in Struber’s fierce pressing structure. To provide an analogy from another area of Red Bull’s global soccer network, Barlow’s work in the final third resembles that of RB Leipzig forward Yussuf Poulsen, known for his robust line-breaking runs and challenges at the top of the Bundesliga club’s formation.

Nobody is asking you to necessarily be excited about the idea of the Red Bulls shelving plans for expensive foreign strikers in favor of the 2013 Gatorade Missouri High School Player Of The Year. Going into a pivotal 2021 season for the Red Bulls with a current striker corps that hasn’t proven reliable would be the opposite of encouraging, and Struber would likely agree given his recent history of demanding higher quality signings at previous clubs. But if Red Bulls fans could appreciate the role of Alex Muyl in the club’s counterintuitive approach to MLS team-building in recent times, they should be able to understand the value of a player like Barlow.

Even if the club does follow through on signing a senior center forward to overtake him in the starting eleven, a domestic striker of Barlow’s size and speed is a weapon of more value to Struber’s New York team than probably any other club on earth. More high-pedrigree talent is needed in the current squad for sure, but if the Red Bulls are ever going to reach their playoff mountaintop or at least return to perennial Supporters Shield contention, they will need just as many clever fits near the bottom of the roster like Tom Barlow.