When Inter Miami superstar Gonzalo Higuaín attempted to bait him into a fight during the course of an argument over a contentious offside call on Saturday night, New York Red Bulls center back Sean Nealis couldn’t help but laugh at the theatrics. It was an increasingly-common moment of maturity for the Long Island-raised center back who has become the centerpiece of a defense that has managed to stay dominant despite constant personnel change.
Despite well-documented struggles over the summer, the New York Red Bulls still have a positive goal differential thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Carlos Coronel and a backline that has remained solid no matter who is thrown in the mix. Nealis and Andrès Reyes as well as natural fullbacks Tom Edwards and Andrew Gutman have all spent time at center back for the Red Bulls in recent weeks in various formations. There were even cameos from Amro Tarek, who departed for Egyptian club El Gouna last month as part of a roster churn that may have to continue this offseason.
With fitness struggles for each of the aforementioned players seemingly in the rearview mirror, the group has been free to build on their prowess backstopping Gerhard Struber’s pressing machine. On the team’s current six game unbeaten streak, they have conceded just two goals and over the course of the year have achieved 10 clean sheets. Reyes and Gutman in particular have shone in recent games, combining with the progress of Nealis to make for a spoiled group center backs in Harrison.
Adding to the impressiveness of the New York backline under makeshift circumstances much of the summer has been that it has happened without Aaron Long, the U.S. national team regular who went down with a long-term Achilles injury in a match against Philadelphia in May. Facing a four-to-six month recovery at the earliest, Long was added to season-ending injury list for salary cap relief, though center back turned out to be one of the areas of least concern in his absence. Despite the quality performances in his void, it’s difficult to imagine Long would come back in 2022 to anything but an assured starting role, coloring the Red Bulls’ biggest decisions of the winter even further.
Paradoxically after the lean days of this summer’s injury crisis, the club is now in a situation where referring to a center back depth chart feels like an understatement. Long, Nealis, and Reyes are tied down permanently, leaving the club with a series of decisions to make on loaned players. Andrew Gutman technically belongs to conference rivals Atlanta United - a club he has never played for or trained with but who had acquired his MLS rights following the end of a loan to Cincinnati from Scottish club Celtic last season. Thanks to a series of standout performances in a variety of roles, Tom Edwards has been cited by some in England recently as a player who still may have a future at his boyhood club Stoke City should he return this winter.
Meanwhile the Red Bulls are also currently breaking in a pair of recent young center back signings who are yet to play a minute for the club. Lucas Monzón, another loan from Danubio of Uruguay, appeared on the bench against Miami and Gerhard Struber said he is “very close” to on-field action last week. Issiar Dramé, a 6’6” tower added from free agency after a youth career in France and Ukraine, has also joined on a short-term deal with only an option deal for next season. However, Struber recently commented that Dramé was not up to speed enough on the team’s tactics to risk in the current playoff push and that he is a player they are preparing for next season, more or less confirming the option will be picked up.
Of course, these are simply the mechanics of what the Red Bulls must navigate this offseason. The deeper question remains which decisions would be best in the club’s interest. The signings of both Monzón and Dramé signal that Struber and sporting director Kevin Thelwell view center back as a position in need of continued reconstruction, a project that may no longer include Aaron Long if Thelwell’s emphasis on lowering the squad’s age at this stage of the rebuilding process is to be read into.
The 29-year-old Californian, who was sought by teams as big as Liverpool earlier this year before being retained by Red Bull in the hopes of being a key veteran presence for this rebuilding New York team, will certainly have a transfer market, though likely one with nowhere near as prestigious suitors as previous windows due to his injury. But if Long can perhaps make a comeback with the national team in January’s B team camp and prove his fitness, he provides the Red Bulls with a great deal of leverage at a key position on the field where talent with the proper physical and technical dimensions are rare.
As is well-known by now, this is a Red Bulls team that wants to get younger as it builds the new version of itself, a dynamic which may lead to far few snags for a potential Aaron Long exit this winter. The club has clearly been impressed by Nealis’s ability to replicate Long’s communication and organization in the back, and his confrontation with Higuaín over the weekend proves he’s becoming a the sort of preternaturally mature professional valued by Red Bull. Andres Reyes matches Long’s athleticism and then some, as well as offering quality on the ball and high transfer market upside.
While an Aaron Long approaching 30 is unlikely to attract many more seven-digit bids from Europe, he can still be turned into significant salary cap space through a trade within a league continuously adding expansion sides desperate for quality domestic veterans. But potentially even better for the Red Bulls, Long could just keep playing for them a while longer. Gerhard Struber has made more use of three-center back formations in recent weeks, and his past inclinations as well as those of his sporting executive Kevin Thelwell indicate that extra bodies at the position may be crucial for the team going forward. Long with Reyes and Nealis could be a bedrock defensive structure to build from for a decent-sized window of time, made even more formidable (especially if the three-man backlines are expected to be a continued tactical feature) if the talents of one or both of Gutman and Edwards can be retained.
As Kevin Thelwell told OaM last week, the Red Bulls are “not as far off as people think” and, while there are still some key decisions to be made, center back is one area where his case is fairly clear.