The eight new players acquired by the New York Red Bulls in the winter transfer window will understandably receive the lion’s share of scrutiny this upcoming season. It is upon this foundation that recently-hired manager Gerhard Struber will build his church of up-tempo football. Head of sport Kevin Thelwell’s tenure will be judged on the strength of these signings (and the hiring of Struber) until enough time has passed where his actions can be viewed holistically with the more transparent perspective of hindsight.
The group recruited by Thelwell is an eclectic mix of American youth internationals, South American head turners, and synergy signings from Salzburg. Curiosity surrounds the peculiar transfer strategy featuring five loans, produced from a calculated logic of “try before you buy” amid a cloudy economic forecast and a continued global pandemic. With few marquee difference makers joining any club in Major League Soccer, these players have undefined expectations on a roster mired by questions of quality. Each is seemingly capable of seizing a starting role, while also disappearing as quickly and anonymously as he arrived.
But what about the players who signed last year? Prior to Thelwell’s arrival last February and throughout the course of his first season, the Red Bulls made four international purchases of varying acclaim. Their combined impact was not enough to push the club any further than it has journeyed in the past, as three – defender Mandela Egbo, midfielder Dru Yearwood, and goalkeeper David Jensen – failed to convincingly grasp a starting role. The fourth signing, Jason Pendant, laid claim to the left back position but did not inspire confidence with his play, as evidenced by the convoluted loan earlier this month of Andrew Gutman, a promising fullback New York could still end up developing for the future benefit of quasi-rival Atlanta United.
The upcoming season is perhaps most important for this group of international players, all signed with the intention of becoming starters yet having slid out of focus. Avoiding the tempting yet overwrought hypothetical discussion speculative roster calculus involving variables of international spots, MLS and the league’s increasingly byzantine rules put increased pressure on signings to produce or perish. There is no five-year window to develop with a series of increasingly challenging loans or in the reserves. To the detriment of American soccer, sometimes two years is too long to allocate to anything other than an immediate success.
Few players are able to hit the field running, as the adjustment process to a new club can take time. The burden is greater for international signings, dealing with an onslaught of cultural and lifestyle differences. In a study for the Journal of Novel Physiotherapies, Khatija Bahdur and Dr. Richard Pruna found that athletes are prone to homesickness and may struggle in new environments. One of the greatest difficulties is balancing basic task knowledge with gaining “team knowledge and team work where he understands the actions of his teammates.” Learning a new style of play impacted over 90% of participants in the sample group, an example of which could perhaps be a gegenpress run by a now-former manager alleged to possess neither the firmest grasp and appreciation of the tactical style nor the ability to instruct the precise deployment and positioning required for success.
Adjusting to a new club in the year 2020 was made all the more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, an unforeseen disruption making acclimation an even steeper mountain to climb. As Jensen told Danish outlet Tipsbladet in December, “Had we known that corona would come, we would not have left.” Regardless of his stated regret, he was in the United States, fulfilling his contract and competing for the starting role, ultimately losing the job to heir apparent Ryan Meara. The challenge only gets harder this year with the arrival of Carlos Coronel, a well-regarded reserve with Champions League experience whose recipe for stardom is said to only be missing the key ingredient of regular playing time. The towering Dane may never see the field again, a casualty of the variable tornado.
The English duo of Egbo and Yearwood face similar battles against new signings, although the latter is likely to receive a greater chance due to his pedigree, tactical fit, and higher financial outlay. The former struggled to receive playing time, but is still building his career at only 23 years old. Already at his third foreign club following stints at Borussia Mönchengladbach and Darmstadt 98, adjusting to a new country should have been less of a challenge as the first move is always the hardest. If any string is closest to running out, it’s the one representing the player competing with starter Kyle Duncan and on-loan Stoke fullback Tom Edwards, whose quiver full of crosses are said to be a perfect fit for Struber’s attack.
For the Red Bulls Class of 2020, this season is their most important, as they may not get another. Their first season at the club was marked by a move in a singular direction with a defined style supported by a global scouting purview. Due to a variety of reasons on and off the field, any judgment of the previous year should be considered irrelevant to their value, but that will not delay the swift hammer of departure from falling at any time. If these four players are going to succeed, it has to be now, whether they are ready or not.