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Report: Sporting Lisbon defender Ilori declines Red Bulls move

Central defenders appear to be on shopping list as Thelwell continues offseason pursuits

Sporting CP v Boavista FC - Liga NOS Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

The first New York Red Bulls transfer rumor of 2021 involves reportedly striking out on the acquisition of a well-pedigreed defender.

O Jogo reveals Tiago Ilori turned down a loan offer, one that would have run through the entire 2021 season. The English-Portuguese center back rejected the move believing New York “was not the right option to continue his career.” With a reported annual salary of 1.3 million euros and a contract that runs through June of 2024, Sporting Lisbon is attempting to get the seldom used 27-year-old reserve player off the books.

Ilori is an interesting target, in desperate need of new scenery. Undoubtedly, the Red Bulls’ UK-attuned front office is familiar with the Portuguese international from his time in England where he was a noted signing by Liverpool before withering on the vine with loans to Aston Villa and Reading. However, a move to MLS was always unlikely considering he recently turned down offers from more prestigious clubs such as Feyenoord, Hamburg, and Trabzonspor. To pry away a former academy player with a long-term contract and a preference for home, the alternative must be profound, which hardly describes a speculative one-year loan offer from a transitioning club located in a country mired in the throes of a pandemic.

The Red Bulls’ pursuit of an expensive center back piques curiosity considering all four from the 2020 season were retained. It’s possible the club is stocking up on quality defenders in anticipation of a shift to the 3-5-2 formation preferred by manager Gerhard Struber. Upon his somewhat heralded signing by Liverpool in 2013, Ilori was marked as one of Europe’s elite young defensive talents. His exceptional pace (he reportedly broke Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo’s 30-meter sprint records as a youth player at Sporting) would appear to be his most enticing trait for Struber, whose system requires intense mobility from the backline.

The reported offer could also indicate that one or more of Tim Parker, Aaron Long, Sean Nealis, and Amro Tarek is on the way out. Rumors and reports seem to follow the former two, but market value and interest inherently point to a possible need with their current team. Long will be turning 29 this year, and between age and the transfer depression brought on by the covid-19 pandemic the window has likely closed on a major European transfer - he appears to be an ideal center back for Struber both in his athletic ability and nose for goal on set pieces. Parker saw his listless form turn around with strong performances in late 2020, and Nealis appears to be one of the few Hamlett-era signings to be valued by the new regime as his contract option was exercised last month.

The transfer market is open, and the Red Bulls intend on being a player. Time will tell how influential. While unrequited desire is part and parcel of the sports world (and life), the new regime is building quite the timeline of failed moves, which could become a concern when not paired with the arrival of, sigh, difference makers. While failure can be an “essential prerequisite” for success, there must eventually be some production signalling a move in the right direction. But the targeting of a player with the former Portugal youth international Ilori’s pedigree is a signal that the club is aiming for experience and quality in its next senior signings.