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What are the Red Bulls going to do without Aaron Long?

New York left with unenviable options after talismanic center back suffers season-ending injury

SOCCER: MAY 15 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union
The depth and versatility of the Red Bulls roster will be tested following the season-ending injury to defensive bellcow Aaron Long
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s the sequel to Damien Perrinelle, Gideon Baah, and Aurelien Collin that no New York Red Bulls fan wanted to see.

Center back Aaron Long hobbled out of bounds after an awkward lunge in the closing minutes of New York’s 1-0 loss in Philadelphia, and the worst possible news came down on Monday when it was reported by Kristian Dyer that the United States international would miss the remainder of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

In many ways the posterchild for the Red Bulls’ developmental strategy after evolving from journeyman USL midfielder to world class defender since signing with the club in 2016, it’s an understatement to say Long was a huge part of the team’s plans for 2021. After a transfer window where bids from clubs as prestigious as Liverpool were rejected, the club kept Long in the hopes of maintaining a veteran spine to guide the influx of young talent to the club over the winter. Indeed Long had been a driving force in the team’s recent defensive solidity, with his mobility and tact in shifting the defensive line laterally being a crucial part of the team’s overall pressing system.

But now first-year head coach Gerhard Struber and his sporting executive Kevin Thelwell must go back to the drawing board at a position already left relatively thin heading into 2021. While Colombian youth international Andrés Reyes was one of the club’s bigger permanent transfers in the offseason, he has been conspicuously left out of the first team picture entirely despite MLS experience from last season with Inter Miami. 2019 SuperDraft pick Sean Nealis has earned the most consistent stretch of professional minutes over the early parts of the season, but it’s difficult to see the 24-year-old as a reliable defensive general for a team that hopes to contend. Left-footed Egyptian international Amro Tarek also left Saturday’s game with an injury of seemingly less intensity, though his apparent status as a backup left fullback leaves the team’s depth chart further stressed even if he recovers.

Additional bodies will almost certainly have to be brought in, but how and from where remains difficult to predict. Despite his confusing exile from the first team as a fullback, English youth international Mandela Egbo has captained the Red Bulls II reserve side as a center back in the early weeks of the USL season in the move that becomes cannier in the given circumstances. Currently on loan status to the USL team, Egbo would be the easiest addition to make, though fitting his international status onto the roster would be difficult given the team’s current stretched foreign numbers.

Will the Red Bulls head to the transfer market yet again after a hyperactive offseason? The likely move of placing Long on the Season-Ending Injury List would not free up his entire $900,000 salary cap hit but would allow New York to sign a replacement player at a salary of up to $250,000. Perhaps a veteran looking for a short-term adventure such as Struber favorite Michael Sollbauer could be available when the dust settles from Barnsley’s Championship playoffs run or yet another Salzburg loanee could be finagled. But generally speaking the given salary would make luring a established senior pro from overseas difficult (most of the Red Bulls’ foreign signings under Thelwell were listed last week with salaries between $200k and $600k) and the aforementioned strain of international spots also limits the club’s ability to potentially snatch a wayward center back as the European club calendar closes this month.

But Thelwell and Struber have also both shown a surprising appetite for players already in MLS with the recruitment of Reyes as well as Cincinnati want-aways Andrew Gutman and Frankie Amaya. With apparent misfits such as Daniel Royer being rumored as trade pieces in recent weeks, the Red Bulls may look to find an established MLS center back on the outs from his current team as they look to replace some of Long’s know-how in the heart of the backline.

Whatever route is chosen, the master plan for the new regime’s first full year has been scuttled. But it’s also an opportunity for the heralded plug-and-playability of the Red Bull blueprint to flex its muscles in an MLS season where few teams have established dominance early. How Kevin Thelwell reacts in shaping the roster and how Gerhard Struber adapts his squad’s defensive deployment will be key tests of the vaunted European duo’s talents in their new surroundings. There’s still plenty of time to save the season for the New York Red Bulls, but the margins just got much smaller.