After several weeks of rumors, the New York Red Bulls finally confirmed the signing of Cameron Harper from Celtic FC of the Scottish Premiership. The 19-year-old attacker was acquired for an undisclosed fee and will notably join the club on a permanent basis in an offseason when the Red Bulls have earned attention for a high ratio of loan signings.
Harper had recently become a fringe member of the first team at the storied Glasgow club, making his league debut in a match against Hibernian in January, and additionally being selected for the club’s Champions League squad over the past season. Harper had joined Celtic in the fall of 2018 after scholarship offers from NCAA programs including UCLA. Raised in California by Scottish parents, Harper was able to bypass UK work permit restrictions that typically block Americans from entry-level roles at British clubs. After progressing well at reserve level Harper earned attention from both the Scottish and American national team programs, settling for now with the US with whom he earned his first under-20 cap last year.
Celtic (who recently parted ways with embattled manager Neil Lennon) and the Scottish league are certainly not what they used to be in global football’s hierarchy, with Harper himself stating his reserve opposition is an odd mix of academy teenagers and part-time adult pros. But graduating from the reserves at a busy club constantly cycling in new transfers is no easy feat, and the length of time between the signing’s completion and its first appearances as a rumor in January implies Celtic were eager to either keep Harper or earn a substantial fee for his contract.
Harper was listed as a “winger” and “midfielder” in New York’s press release on Friday morning, while the Sacramento native himself stated he sees himself as a “front three” player. But it is unclear both due to Harper’s playing background and Red Bulls coach Gerhard Struber’s to-be-determined tactical details where exactly he will be deployed on the field.
Harper’s highlight reels show a daring wide player comfortable using his speed to go past players both on the side of the box to deliver a cross or deep in the midfield to run at goal. While the current Red Bulls attacking midfield corps includes clever passers like Caden Clark and Florian Valot and predatory scorers like Daniel Royer and Omir Fernandez, a direct dribbler like Harper could add a new dimension to the New York attack wherever he is placed in the lineup.
However questions linger about whether a role exists for a wide forward player in the narrow midfield diamond tactical system traditionally preferred by new Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber. Struber’s teams have typically relied on fullbacks and the inside-out movement of central strikers rather than traditional wingers to provide width, and the signings of line-hugging fullback Tom Edwards and pacey target striker Fábio Gomes Netto have further foreshadowed such an approach. Struber may plan on using a variety of formations in New York, but more likely is the conversion of the speedster Harper into one of the hard-pressing spearheads (perhaps in a front two rather than Harper’s preferred “front three”) at the top of Struber’s attack.
The now-confirmed move additionally merges two of the threads that have defined the recruitment process for the Red Bulls under second-year sporting chief Kevin Thelwell. First is the signing of recently-revered talent crowded out of the first team picture at cash-flush British clubs such as Brentford depth chart casualty Dru Yearwood, Crystal Palace exile Mandela Egbo, and former Stoke City player of the year Tom Edwards. The second is American youth internationals (like Caden Clark and Luca Lewis) seeking their professional breakthroughs after unsuccessfully striving for higher levels early on.
Harper additionally becomes the latest first-generation European-American signed by New York in recent months after the addition of Italian dual national goalkeeper Lewis from Torino. There is a constantly-increasing amount of Americans at European clubs who would qualify as domestic players in MLS, and with many of them inevitably finding paths to professional minutes blocked at these higher levels it would be canny for a youth-focused Red Bulls club to continue mining this vein of talent.
But in the meantime Harper helps the team continue on its trend of becoming younger, faster, and perhaps more Red Bull than they ever have. Whether or not you think this is the correct approach, the club is clearly committed to a coherent technical identity after several years of drift and neglect. In a league when most other teams are back to the drawing board after a global pandemic that disrupted roster plans and depressed the transfer market, the decisiveness displayed by the Red Bulls could be all the edge they need, not unlike the last time a bold new regime took over.