Though the playoffs don’t start for another week, the hot stove season appears to have already begun for the New York Red Bulls. While several positions are likely to see upheaval this offseason, right fullback has staked itself out as the first position where Gerhard Struber and Kevin Thelwell will have to go back to square one this winter.
First came the news breaking late on Tuesday that Kyle Duncan, fresh off a breakthrough season in which he was just listed by WhoScored as the best-performing MLS right back, appears set to exit the club following the conclusion of postseason play. It was reported by Nieuwsblad that Belgian first division side KV Oostende are close to a free transfer for the 24-year-old Duncan, whose contract expires this winter after four seasons with the Red Bulls.
The Brooklyn native and nephew of legendary forward George Weah has had an up-and-down pro career in New York since signing as a trialist following a stalled stint at French club Valenciennes. A knee injury derailed a promising rookie year for Duncan in the Shield-winning campaign of 2018 before the next two years were spent bouncing between the reserves and the fringes of a dysfunctional first team under Chris Armas.
After a shaky start to 2021, Duncan has blossomed in recent months under Gerhard Struber, who Duncan credits with improving his confidence and focus in a season where he has been one of the team’s lead attacking threats. But the heralded status Duncan now has in the New York squad hasn’t appeared to have squelched his appetite to return to Europe for likely higher wages and the chance to raise his nascent national team profile. Curiously but perhaps purely coincidentally, Oostende are owned by Chinese-American hotel tycoon Chien Lee, formerly an employer of Gerhard Struber at another club he owns, Barnsley FC.
If your mind drifted towards Tom Edwards immediately stepping into the starting right back role, write it in pencil rather than pen. The 22-year-old Englishman could still have a future at boyhood club Stoke City after a year on loan in New York, where his performances in an often-makeshift Red Bulls defense have received quiet praise.
Despite the continued presence of Stoke’s starting right back Tommy Smith as well as manager Michael O’Neill - speculated to still not be an Edwards fan - it was reported by Mark Mothershaw (the Stoke Sentinel writer, not the Devo frontman) that Edwards will seek a return to the Potters’ first team following the end of the MLS campaign. With the Stoke defensive corps fairly thin going into the English second division’s brutal winter schedule, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for Edwards and his camp to expect at least some playing time back at the bet365 Stadium.
So it appears that at least one position will force New York sporting chief Kevin Thelwell to consult his “crystal ball of doom” this offseason. The fullback positions on either side of Gerhard Struber’s vertical pressing formation require skilled, mobile players capable of covering large amounts of ground as well as facilitating possession, and losing two known entities at the position would pose a firm challenge for the Harrison braintrust.
The flurry of right back news was accented on Thursday by the list the league players union published of members entering free agency this winter, among whom was Red Bulls captain Sean Davis. Veteran forward Daniel Royer was also listed, though a scoreless season leaves the Austrian far less of a concern than Davis, who played every single minute of the 2021 regular season in a holding midfield role. Tom Bogert reported on the league website Thursday that Davis and the Red Bulls have had discussions regarding a new deal, though it appears unlikely that anything firm will be agreed or announced before the end of the team’s playoff run.
With Aaron Long showing up on the list of players whose next year hinges on a contract option, the list of decisions that Kevin Thelwell and the Red Bulls front office will have to tackle this offseason is growing by the day.