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Tim Parker and the intrepid quest for the right Red Bulls backline

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The center back’s arrival and exit with the Red Bulls were both products of a newfound emphasis on building the squad’s defensive unit

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake Melissa Majchrzak-USA TODAY Sports

As fans in a salary-capped league increasingly seeking to become enmeshed in the global transfer market, Major League Soccer fans are used to key players leaving their club. While Tim Parker’s departure to Houston has some solid rationale on paper, many New York Red Bulls supporters will still feel a twinge in their heart to see him go. Although his last two seasons could be bumpy as the club stagnated, Parker’s stint in New York should be associated first and foremost with the success of the blistering 2018 shield-winning campaign.

In forming a historically elite unit with Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Amir Murillo, Parker’s arrival signaled a new emphasis at the back in Harrison. After years of injury trouble and stubborn reliance on utility players, Parker’s instant insertion into the lineup on the eve of the record-breaking season felt like the first time the Harrison front office had paid full attention to its backline and immediately reaped the rewards with a record-setting league title.

To see the purpose and thought behind his signing, one need look no further than Parker’s very first appearance for the club. Only 24 hours after meeting the team for the first time at the Tijuana airport, Parker was tasked with a simple but ruthless mission in that night’s Champions League match to seek-and-destroy any balls in the final third while Aaron Long provided astute positional cover. Such efficient deployment in such a short timeframe of preparation seemed to substantiate comments made by Jesse Marsch over the course of the week. Parker being a good fit for the way Red Bull was going to play was not mere press release filler - the manager believed in the prescribed roles of the system enough to plug them into a major continental tournament overnight.

This kind of focus was a stark contrast to the construction of previous defensive corps at Red Bull Arena, which while frequently featuring top-level individual defenders, had never seen a full commitment to a balanced backline of quality. Before the era of allocation money, the likes of Jámison Olave, Markus Holgersson, and Tim Ream were among the league’s elite defenders and although Rafa Márquez’s stint in Harrison was a fiasco, his signing represented an enormous spend on a defender at that point in the league’s history. Yet despite being able, or in the case of Márquez, financially willing, to find some quality center backs, at this point in league history it was more or less impossible to purposefully assemble such a cohesive defensive unit with the scraps of money and attention left over from signings further up the field.

But even as league-wide spending policies began to broaden, New York continued to display a somewhat careless attitude towards building the backline. In 2015, the club struck gold with little-known Jamaican trialist Kemar Lawrence and academy product Matt Miazga. But these were the standouts among a relatively arbitrary cohort comprised of aging Frenchmen Damien Perrinelle and Ronald Zubar, and domestic journeymen like Chris Duvall and Sal Zizzo. Compared to Jesse Marsch’s immediate pursuit of personal favorites Felipe and Sacha Kljestan in the midfield, the back line seemed like an afterthought.

When Miazga left for Chelsea, Zubar slotted in next to Perrinelle. Compared to the pressing scheme further up the pitch and Perrinelle’s previous work complementing Miazga’s aggressive decision-making and third-line passes, this partnership was more generic. That is when it could even stay healthy — an ACL tear and chronic injury problems eventually threw the Red Bulls into a crisis only resolved by the mid-season acquisition of Aurelien Collin. While the veteran Frenchman helped stabilize the season on the way to becoming a trilingual fixture in the clubhouse, the ad hoc approach to building the backline likely cost the team a repeat Shield title in Marsch’s second season.

In 2017 the team remained complacent about staffing the backline and were punished, with the previous season’s savior Collin succumbing to a long-term foot injury and reliance on Sal Zizzo and Kemar Lawrence as emergency center backs costing the team crucial points in the home stretch. But the emergence of Aaron Long and Amir Murillo in 2017 opened up a new window to start a coherent defensive unit with the help of allocation money. Tim Parker was that piece that the team sacrificed a key figure elsewhere in the team in Felipe Martins to acquire, and the reward was the tactical dominance of the 2018 team that made the doorstep of the Champions League final on the way to the Shield victory.

Soccer: Concacaf Champions League-Club Tijuana at New York Red Bulls
Tim Parker’s early 2018 acquisition shored up a unbalanced backline and paid immediate dividends in the Champions League victory over Tijuana
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

But even as Parker appeared to signal a new era of building out the structure of the New York squad from the back, an immediate reminder of the dangers of taking defensive talent for granted in MLS took hold in the later years of his tenure. The elite backline which conceded the fewest goals in MLS and set the league points record lasted only one year fully intact. A lack of foresight and man-management skills from manager Chris Armas and sporting director Denis Hamlett saw the club’s elite fullbacks Lawrence and Murillo unceremoniously exit for Europe after a dismal 2019 campaign, a season in which defensive personnel planning became so haphazard that college draft pick Rece Buckmaster was portrayed by management as a building block talent.

In contrast his assured installation to the team from the Tijuana airport, Parker’s own form suffered in the club’s confused technical direction in 2019 and 2020 and it appears the Long Islander is now a casualty of an attempt to reverse course and re-emphasize fresh defensive talent as the team’s building block. Despite the upheaval following Murillo and Lawrence’s exits, one could be forgiven for thinking the backline was one of the areas where the Red Bulls were less in need of a reset. The resurgence of Kyle Duncan along with the acquisitions of Jason Pendant and Mandela Egbo appeared to already mark an extensive overhaul of the defensive unit.

But, as the Red Bulls have learned through the progression of their backline in the last decade, defensive players are often the part of a squad a serious manager must be most discerning about. More than arguably any other position, a defensive player (a center back especially) can go from an all star in one tactical system to a deer in the headlights with the subtlest adjustment to another. Comments from the club’s new sporting braintrust of Kevin Thelwell and Gerhard Struber imply a great tactical interest in what they describe as a “big talent” they’ve found with new signing Andrés Reyes, much like Marsch’s comments about snagging Tim Parker three years ago. As this new leadership confidently seeks a return to the detailed ethos of Red Bull soccer, it appears they see the promising talent of Reyes as the most viable path for reconstructing the coherent defensive unit that Parker proved the club needs.