They might not be the most popular transactions in a fanbase known to call for big name stars, but with the signing of 14-year-old Bento Estrela last week, New York Red Bulls continued their tradition of bringing through academy talent into the first team professional level. Since 2008, Major League Soccer’s Homegrown Player Rule has attempted to help bridge the gap between local talent and the first division. The program that gives team’s first claim to players from their general area has had a hand in developing some of the best crop of current MLS talent, alongside some who have found success overseas, with New York being at the front of the trend.
With Estrela’s addition, the Red Bulls have signed 24 players to homegrown deals. Not counting the new 14-year old, fourteen of these players either never played a regular season game with the first team or only played a handful of matches for one season. The remaining nine include some of the team’s biggest success stories and pieces of the highly successful 2010 era. Some of these players have taken part in iconic moments at Red Bull Arena, some have been pillars who attempted in order to succeed, and some on the team currently still have the chance to end up with their names hung in the arena rafters.
5. Connor Lade (2012–19)
Connor Lade was the first homegrown player that actually developed into a full-fledged member of the first team. You can argue Juan Agudelo might hold that title but he had one good 2011 season before falling off the face of the earth (also known as joining Chivas USA) until he signed with New England in 2015. With Lade, I don’t think many could ask for a player with longevity and the ability to adapt to multiple systems put before him.
He was never “the guy” during his near decade with the team, but he was a dependable asset during a highly successful decade. In fact minus one Western Conference title, Lade has been a part of every professional trophy the New York first team has won up until this point.
Under four separate managers, Lade was able to adapt to most systems. His breakout rookie season was under Hans Backe, he fell into veteran status with Mike Petke, and re-found his form after serious injury under Jesse Marsch before evolving into more of a locker room leadership role under Chris Armas. In a sport where staying with one team for an entire career is rare, let alone not being let-go after two poor seasons, Lade consistently remained a piece of the Red Bulls puzzle.
Currently, Lade still has a home at Red Bull Arena in the front office as the Senior Manager of Alumni & Player Relations. It’s honestly nice to see him stick around the team even after un-tying his boots. I like to equate Lade to being the Red Bulls’ version of what Brett Gardner is/was to the New York Yankees. Playing for one team his entire career, was never the main attraction, but over-time remained steadfast and became a shining image for the best the team can be.
4. Derrick Etienne Jr (2016-19)
Derrick Etienne hits an awkward spot in the Red Bulls homegrown history. Despite never really breaking through as first team regular with the Red Bulls, the Haitian national teamer was a visible figure in the team for several successful seasons before moving on to even more success after leaving New York.
The son and nephew of former Haiti internationals, it isn’t a surprise really that by the age of 12 he was already taking part in Red Bull youth programs, where he exceeded through the system. He only spent one year at the University of Virginia before going fully professional and joining New York Red Bulls II in 2015. After one season, he was signed by the first team as it’s 13th ever homegrown.
Jake Evans’ scouting report about Etienne’s driving dribbling runs still holds true to what Etienne brought to the 2016 Red Bulls II reserve squad that won the USL title. The problem in the end however was the midfield at first team level became too crowded. By 2019 Etienne was unable to distinguish himself next to depth chart competitors such as Alex Muyl, Marc Rzatkowski, and Andreas Ivan. After an unsuccessful loan to FC Cincinnati in late 2019, Etienne was acquired on waivers by Columbus Crew, with whom he won last year’s truncated MLS Cup title.
On a personal note, his assist on Djimy Alexis’ game winning goal over Costa Rica in the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage is still the loudest crowd reaction I’ve ever heard in Red Bull Arena.
3. Alex Muyl (2016–20)
A cult hero among elements of the fanbase and a lightning rod for others, Manhattan native Alex Muyl was an integral part of Jesse Marsch’s Red Bull teams after being signed on a homegrown deal from Georgetown University in 2016.
Muyl surprised many by becoming a first-choice starter for Marsch in 2016 and carved out a distinctive role as a type of defensive winger. Muyl’s powerful, direct running was a key part of the high octane Red Bulls system on both sides of the ball. But these attributes often covered up a frequently savvy technique, displayed in such moments as this delightful assist to Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2018.
But much like Etienne, the lineup carousel that emerged under Chris Armas ending up leaving Muyl without consistent minutes to find form. With the club firmly in rebuilding mode under new sporting chief Kevin Thelwell in 2019, Muyl was transferred midseason to Nashville for an international roster slot and allocation.
2. Tyler Adams (2016–18)
Probably the most overall talented player on this list, Tyler Adams’ rise at New York Red Bull was rapid and well documented. His three seasons with the first team, and five in the organization’s professional outfits as a whole, demonstrated him as an impact player and as one of the most threatening midfielders in the league.
Adams’ tale of joining the RBNY academy in 2011 and progressing quickly is well known at this point. By the time lifted gold with John Wolyniec’s group in 2016, sentiment of him joining the MLS side full-time was a matter of “when”, not “if”. His speed and control helped more plays develop in the midfield and he developed great chemistry with targets like Brandon Allen, who led RBNY II in goals in 2016, and Derrick Etienne who came up and flourished on the first team with him.
His biggest accomplishment is still his final season with the club during 2018, when he became a leader barking orders at veterans almost twice his age. The goal against Club Tijuana in the second leg of the Champions League quarter finals that effectively sealed the organization’s first semifinal appearance, the chase and overtaking of Atlanta United for the Supporter’s Shield, and breaking into the U.S. national team picture were all feathers in Adams’ 2019 cap.
Along with Alex Muyl and Sean Davis, Adams helped fill out a deadly local-bred midfield. The possibilities of passing up to Bradley Wright-Phillips for one of his team leading 20 goals, passing around defenses to find openings, or attempt shots themselves was the bane of most opposing defenses. He could be the defensive midfielder that helps break-up plays or go box-to-box.
The only reason Tyler isn’t number one on this list is because as a “homegrown” on the first team, his time in New York feels more like a stepping stone in what could be a storied career. His jump to RB Leipzig raises the downside of having a successful academy program - the likelihood that higher levels of the soccer world will come calling.
But his story will always be told with his start in Harrison. However, in the long history of the team Adam’s does not hold a large stake of New York’s story overall.
1. Sean Davis (2015–)
If a club’s most successful homegrown player is measured in cumulative contributions to their native team, Sean Davis has accomplished more than any other homegrown player in Red Bulls history. He’s gone from a 21-year-old assisting in the 2014 NPSL Final for Red Bull U-23 while in the academy, to scoring goals in CONCACAF Champions League on the first team, and last season became the first homegrown captain in team history.
Since going professional in 2015 after a stint at Duke University, Davis has played in over 20 games a season in all but two years. A solid, if not flashy, rookie season working in platoon or as the more attacking partner with then-captain Dax McCarty saw the team win the Supporter’s Shield. Over time, he’s evolved into a deeper holding role under various managers and systems. Perhaps Davis’ most direct contribution thus far has been anchoring the team that made the 2017 Open Cup final.
Davis’ cemented his role as an on-the-field leader long before he was given the armband in 2020. On a team that had Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips, Davis became one of the locker room leaders and nowhere was that more evident than the 2019 season. After the historically bad start, and during BWP’s nine game absence with a groin injury, Davis was one of the players who helped right the ship. The team won six of nine, only losing two games, and Sean went all 90 minutes in seven of those games. Eventually the team was able to claw back into the season despite it’s 2018 shield hangover.
The Red Bulls have spent the last decade developing a reputation for bringing through young talent, and the next season shows them to be going even younger. Former RB Salzburg academy and reserves stalwart Gerhard Struber has a recent history with getting great results from younger players, and if he can create the same conditions in New York that he did in Wolfsberger and Barnsley, the Red Bulls could be seeing more homegrowns reaching prominence soon.