The New York Red Bulls faithful were perplexed during the first game of the season. With Sporting Kansas City ahead 2-1 and the Red Bulls chasing an equalizing goal, manager Gerhard Struber subbed in Wikelman Carmona, perhaps the least heralded of the dozen offseason signings made by the club.
It was expected by most observers that the 18-year-old Venezuelan was going to spend his first season in New York with the reserve team in the USL Championship, as the attacking midfielder had never played a single game as a professional before that home opener. Carmona’s entry did not lead to a goal as the Red Bulls lilted to a 2-1 loss, but in 18 minutes of play the teenager showed quality on the ball and that he was up for the physicality of MLS.
“Carmona is a big talent, he brings many things to our style of play, especially on the ball, but also for his age in the physical part he is in very good shape, he can handle the in fights at an MLS level,” said Struber during a press conference days after the game against Kansas City.
The Venezuelan hasn’t seen MLS action since, but has made the bench a couple of times, and has started in three USL games for New York Red Bulls II. A dominant performance is yet to manifest, but his touch and movement has turned heads, something that has been a constant since he was a child and that could explain why he landed in Red Bull territory.
“[Carmona] was the ‘different player’ when we found him,” said Ricardo Negrín, director of the Academia Dynamo, the Venezuelan youth academy - not a registered club - where Carmona was playing before coming to New York. “I’m not saying he was or is the best player, but was different and we were looking for that, he has unique qualities.”
Cast away on the island
Carmona spent five years in the Academia Dynamo, which is on Isla Margarita, an island off the northeastern coast of Venezuela’s mainland. He was one of 10 residents in the youth club after he and his family moved there from the estate of Guárico, where Carmona was living.
The youth soccer club was founded by Negrín in 2010 with the mission of providing comprehensive support to soccer prospects in the country.
“I founded Academia Dynamo for personal reasons,” said Negrín, who played the game in his youth but couldn’t accomplish the goal of becoming a full professional. “I didn’t have the support in a country where soccer wasn’t the main sport at that time. I didn’t want other talents to suffer the same.”
Negrín built the academy facilities but understood that he needed a methodology for the project to take shape. His search led him to Javier Vidales, a youth soccer specialist from Spain who is currently the director of Atlético Madrid’s academy. The Spaniard accepted the challenge to develop a soccer project in the island using the Método Direccional program, which is described as “a way of living within football” and one that “encourages progress” in soccer player by “progressively taking them from the simple to the complex.”
According to Negrín, a typical day in Academia Dynamo for a resident player starts at 5:45 a.m. with 45 minutes of work on the ball. The players then have breakfast and take academic classes until noon. After the classes they have lunch, one hour of soccer training and homework time. The heavy training starts at 3:00 p.m. and lasts three hours. After it, players are free for two hours to play on their own in whatever they want, including playing against local teams that use the club facilities. By 9:00 p.m. residents have eaten dinner and are ready to go to bed with no cell phones allowed by then.
The regime seems strict, but Carmona’s account of his time there does not speak of such.
“What I like the most about the Dynamo academy is that they teach to be a family, they teach to value all things and they treat players very well,” said Carmona over the phone.
The Red Bull Connection
Carmona’s first major exposure to the world came in the 2019 U-17 South American Championship which was played in Perú. The midfielder was the only player born in 2003 on Venezuela’s team. There he scored a mid-distance goal that became a testament to the power of his left foot. Philadelphia Union were among the competing teams scouting Carmona in that tournament along with the Red Bulls.
Carmona got into the Venezuela national program thanks in part to the vicinity of Academia Dynamo and the training facilities of Venezuela national teams in Margarita. The youth program has become the youth national team’s preferred scrimmage opponent in recent years. A month after the Conmebol U-17 championship, Carmona joined Venezuela’s U-16 team for a tournament in Prague, in which Venezuela faced Hungary, United States and Czech Republic. It was there that he was approached by Red Bull for the first time as scouts from RB Leipzig extended an invitation for training.
“It was a surprise for us because Leipzig representatives told us they usually don’t look at underage players from South Americans,” said Negrín.
Carmona impressed during the 10 days of training, but Leipzig suggested sending him to Red Bull Bragantino in 2020 to track his development from there.
“Soccer is very fast there, the level is very high, it was a wonderful experience to train with Leipzig,” said Carmona.
Brazil’s troubles with the COVID-19 pandemic changed the plans of sending Carmona to Bragantino. It was then decided that he should go to New York Red Bulls, where Cristian Cásseres (who shares the same agency as Carmona with T&C Sports Management) was a good example of another Venezuelan arriving as a teenager for the next stage of his development.
“We were interested in the project (when we started to analyze offers for Wikelman),” said Negrín. “Red Bull offered a continuation to his development process, which was what we were looking for.”
In New York, Carmona has found some similarities with the Academia Dynamo, but is clear in his mind that this stage is decisive for his career.
“[New York Red Bulls] is a club that values players and cares about improving them,” said Carmona. “It’s similar to Academia Dynamo, but this is a professional environment and as a player you have to push yourself if you want to succeed.”
Struber stated that it would be part of the process to see Carmona having time with both first and second team throughout the season. The Venezuelan understands that and barely feels discouragement for that sort of rollercoaster between levels of play.
“I will always give everything, and if they send me to the second team I will give even more,” said Carmona.