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Edelman and younger Nealis signed, but Davis on way out?

The Red Bulls are wasting no time getting busy this offseason

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Inter Miami CF v Montreal Impact
You have to dig back to the heady times of 2020 with Miami to find decent action photos of new Red Bull Dylan Nealis.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

It’s become expected for the New York Red Bulls to go young with signings, but signing a player’s younger brother is…well, actually also somewhat expected.

After a season in which his older brother Sean served as a linchpin for an elite Red Bulls defensive line, Dylan Nealis joined the club from Nashville SC for a potential $200k in allocation money. A right-sided defender and midfielder, the younger Nealis becomes a key depth piece for a New York side that is staring at the departures of Kyle Duncan and Tom Edwards this winter. The 23-year-old Nealis served largely as a backup to Canadian international Alastair Johnston for Nashville, making only four appearances this past year after a promising first professional season with Inter Miami. He becomes latest in a long line of younger brothers of significant pros to sign for the Red Bulls, following Wayne Rooney’s brother John, Kaka’s brother Digao, and of course Shaun Wright-Phillips’ brother Bradley.

In a somewhat less surprising bit of transaction wire business for the Red Bulls on Thursday, teenage midfielder Daniel Edelman signed a full MLS contract after two seasons as a standout with the club’s reserve side in the USL. Edelman had been marked out as a player for the future by many observers before the season including club sporting chief Kevin Thelwell, and frequent training with the first team appears to have paid off in his progress after a breakout USL season and a recent youth national team call-up alongside Caden Clark.

The signing of Edelman in particular comes against the backdrop of the big discussion that broke out on Wednesday when Manuel Veth of Transfermarkt confirmed that team captain Sean Davis was in talks with clubs other than the Red Bulls upon becoming a free agent this month. Sam Stejskal of The Athletic further followed up that the MLS teams in the chase for Davis included Vancouver, Nashville, and Orlando.

Davis, who turns 29 next year, is at a odd crossroads of his career. A Jersey native and academy product coming off a season in which he played every single minute for New York, Davis’ role is nonetheless far from certain in the near and far future for the Red Bulls. The midfielder has spoken of his sense that he had to prove himself to new manager Gerhard Struber in the deep midfield role he made his own, even after Struber marked out injury-prone Salzburg loanee Youba Diarra as his prototype in the role in the team’s season opener against Kansas City.

While his ball retention technique in the rapid traffic of New York’s tactics is underrated, Davis has earned most of his reputation as an impeccably-fit runner who sat near the top of the league’s ground-covered charts all year. His communication skills and leadership in the middle of the park along with mature decision-making with and without the ball made him an adequate stopgap option at deep midfield for Struber. But the Duke product’s passing range remains limited, and with the team hinted to be in the market for midfield transfers and young midfielders such as Edelman emerging after a year in which the team’s creative edge in transitions from defense was often lacking, head of sport Kevin Thelwell may see Davis as the latest difficult departure worth having now instead of later as the squad moves into a new era.

With departures of Clark, Fabio, Kyle Duncan, Tom Edwards, Andrew Gutman, and now potentially Davis, the Red Bulls are now approaching a preseason in which they will return less than half of their preferred starting eleven from 2021. The need for a large number of new players to assimilate in Harrison was cited as a source of the team’s inconsistent form in Struber and Thelwell’s first full season in charge, an issue that would supposedly become less of a problem in 2022.

But the Red Bulls are now facing a scenario in which Nealis, Edelman and last week’s signing from Miami, winger Lewis Morgan, will make up part of at least 6-7 first team additions that will need to be made this offseason, and the margin for error in enmeshing such players in the squad will be nearly as thin as the ones that derailed this season.