In the wake of Aaron Long’s season-ending injury suffered against Philadelphia last month, a conventional wisdom quickly developed among New York Red Bulls fans. The team would ride out a difficult couple of fixtures (a messy loss in New England followed by a convincing home victory over Orlando) before the June international break gave the front office time to assess the marketplace and obtain a shiny new starting center back.
But could Gerhard Struber’s team get away with just...not doing that?
The Red Bulls play Nashville on Friday night and, barring a Tim Parker-style airport Starbucks meetup, the club will not be debuting a newly-signed central defender. The team has cleared salary cap space in the form of Brian White and David Jensen, and rumors in recent weeks have linked the club to Austria-based Panamanian Andre Andrade as well as American international Cameron Carter-Vickers. But for now the team will roll with a center back group that isn’t necessarily thin as first appears.
21-year-old Colombian Andres Reyes impressed in the opening 20 minutes against New England, even scoring a goal...before a pair of robust challenges earned him yellow cards and an early shower. The Colombian has played with the reserves in USL since the suspension to maintain match fitness (plus continue to iron out the risky nature of his game) and presumably will be given more chances by Struber to establish himself after a permanent transfer over the winter from Atlético Nacional.
Natural right back Tom Edwards raised some eyebrows when he brought his Joey Barton-honed central defensive skills to the fore in the Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over Orlando just before the international break. Though his slight size disadvantage may leave him challenged against clubs with taller two-striker formations, his mobility and assuredness on the ball were key elements of New York’s quality performance against Orlando.
While doubts will fairly linger about his ability to maintain form over what would be his first full season at senior pro level, Sean Nealis has been quietly impressive in his first stretch as a first-choice senior starter. His vocal organization skills were apparent against Orlando, and while the 24-year-old may not have Aaron Long potential, we could be seeing the emergence of a quality professional center back this season. And don’t forget about Amro Tarek, who has battled injury so far this season but has a real-life Egypt cap and has shown to be capable of good performances in a proper team structure.
Gerhard Struber has indicated in recent weeks that any signing of a new center back would likely be long-term in nature, and thus not something the team would rush into. So for now it appears the Austrian will have to make do with what he has and display his managerial talents in adjusting the defense and the entire lineup over the coming months.
But it’s important to remember that making the most out of these players is not just the fallback plan, but a continuation of the plan set in place by Struber and Kevin Thelwell since their arrival last year. Struber’s tactical approach is built on collective pressing and defending rather than individual stoppers, and Kevin Thelwell has built a squad with layers of versatile talent at symmetrically-staggered levels of career progress and transfer stock to meet a variety of roster scenarios. Professional squads have more than 11 players for a reason, and the team’s backups are paid to do a job. A player like Andres Reyes (who, it turns out, was a Designated Player for Inter Miami last season) should have the ability to step into the team, and a coach of Struber’s pedigree should be expected to know how to get the most out of him.
Perhaps this column becomes obsolete in a few days when the Red Bulls announce the signing of Sergio Ramos. But in the meantime, beginning with Nashville on Friday night, the club is betting on itself and the quality of its existing personnel both on the pitch and the touchline.