The first year of energy drink soccer in the Brazilian top flight ended on a high note as Red Bull Bragantino’s tenth place finish earned the club a spot in the Copa Sudamericana, the second most important CONMEBOL club tournament. The Bragança Paulista-based team recovered from a slow start to become one of the best teams in the second half of the 2020 season that ended on Thursday with Flamengo winning its second consecutive title. The New York Red Bulls sister club, known informally as Massa Bruta, finished in tenth place after a 13 win, 14 draw and 11 loss record that earned them 53 points.
The team managed by Mauricio Barbieri, who took the reins after Felipe Conceiçao was dismissed after only six games, closed the campaign collecting praise by imposing the high-pressure football that identifies Red Bull clubs in every country where they’ve set up shop. A highlight reel of Bragantino’s season is a compendium of ferocious ball steals and attackers outnumbering defenders.
The system was supported by stellar performances from Claudinho, a skillful attacking midfielder who finished the season as the top scorer in Serie A (along with Sao Paulo’s Luciano) with 18 goals, and the elegant-but-relentless central midfielder Raul, arguably their best signing for the Serie A return campaign. Bragantino paid less than $1 million for the rights of both players.
Some buzz around Bragantino can be expected throughout 2021, which will certainly have New York fans wondering if they will be able to receive some of the talent that is emerging in the training ground of their Brazilian relatives. The immediate answer is no, at least for established Bragantino starters. There are few chances that a team with such commitments in Brazil and now continental tournament play would be deplete itself just to favor the MLS franchise, especially if Claudinho goes to Europe as the rumor mill is signaling.
But this does not rule out the possibility that other resources available in Brazil will help to build the New York roster. The recent signing of Fábio Gomes Netto, a striker that Bragantino faced in Serie B and Campeonato Paulista in 2019 while he was playing for Oeste, points in that direction. It is unclear if recently-installed New York manager Gerhard Struber - who visited Bragantino late last year and has acknowledged the South American influence in MLS - was able to see Fábio in person, but regardless it is quite likely that the attacker’s name was near the top of the vast scouting database Bragantino has been building since Red Bull’s full takeover last year.
Part of Bragantino’s future success rests with the scouting department. It is in the identification of players where the club can edge rivals and look for the squad depth required for that level of competition, especially for a system that relies on young players. This means Bragantino will be scouting a myriad of players, but not everyone eyed by them will ended up with a first division contract even when they can collect players like Red Bull Salzburg does. It is here where New York sporting chief Kevin Thelwell’s evaluation and recruitment expertise could make a difference. Brazilian football is similar to the British game Thelwell emerged from when it comes to the surplus of quality players that fall through the cracks to the lower divisions. This is not about getting leftovers from Bragantino, more about taking advantage of Bragantino’s access to hidden talent.
Another element to consider is that Bragantino is not limiting its sources to scout just in Brazil, but are in fact scooping up some of the top youth talent throughout South America. In the past year, the club has bought 19-year-old Ecuadorean center back Leo Realpe, a product of the acclaimed Independiente del Valle academy, and Colombian César Haydar, another teenage central defender developed by Junior de Barranquilla. They also brought two 20-year-olds - Venezuelan center forward Jan Hurtado on loan from Boca Juniors, and Argentine attacking midfielder Tomás Cuello permanently from Atlético Tucumán. After years of a half-hearted commitment to South America, Red Bull are now looking in every place with a ball rolling in the most talent-rich region of the planet.
It remains to be seen if more talent will come to New York from Brazil in the near future. But this offseason’s signings (which includes both the aforementioned Fábio as well as Colombian center back Andrés Reyes and Venezuelan midfield prodigy Wikelman Carmona) indicate there is still a strong interest for Latin American players in the club despite the emphatic European shift in management. This may be the era in which New York and the rest of the Red Bull Global network finally gives a good use out of the resources available in Brazil, even if it is not quite direct synergy with O Toro Vermelho in Bragantino.