With hours remaining on Transfer Deadline Day, the New York Red Bulls announced the addition of 19-year-old Danubio defender Lucas Monzón. Real Betis was also reportedly interested, adding the necessary European co-signing that validates a prospect’s market value and ensures his status was not a complete grasp in the dark. The Uruguayan center back fills a position of need for the new club, although his impact is more likely to be felt in the long term.
While not flashy or expensive, Monzón is certainly an intriguing talent. Just beginning to crest into a key development phase, the Red Bulls have a one-and-a-half season loan to determine his worth as a prospect. Recent call-ups to the Uruguay U-20 national team add further credence to the 19-year-old being on the precipice of a rapid ascent. He has been on a long journey through the sport, carrying the experience of trying times and the ideal skill set for a center back.
Enduring off-field challenges is not a necessary quality, as lack of access often prevents more Mozarts and Einsteins than it creates. However, players that have overcome adversity tend to possess a determination forged by fire, succeeding where others have fallen behind. The move abroad and ensuing adjustment struggled while also attempting to compete for minutes are another mountain to climb, but not the first or most difficult that has been encountered.
Monzón dealt with his fair share of challenges on the road to become a professional. He left home at 13, traveling to Montevideo for an unsuccessful trial with Peñarol. Despite having the return ticket “in [his] hands,” the teenager reversed course and decided to join an underfunded local academy. Away from his family and largely on his own, players were allegedly forced to walk long distances to training and went without food for several days.
“Thank god I met a family here in Montevideo that helped me a lot,” Monzón told Lance! in March. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today… There were days when we didn’t have anything to eat. It was a very difficult time.”
Danubio scouted him at a tournament and recruited him to the club’s highly rated academy. He would progress through the youth levels before making his professional debut in August of 2020. Despite gaining plenty of experience in 19 matches, his first season was somewhat disastrous as La Franja were relegated from the Primera División. In an interview with Sintonía Bohemia, he admitted that beginning his career under that shadow was “complicated.”
Perhaps acknowledging his talent and potential future value as a transfer commodity would regress in the second tier, the club sent him on a short-term deal to Montevideo Wanderers that was eventually extended to the whole year. Freed from the threat of relegation, the new environment was “relaxed” with a “totally different” focus during training. Initially derailed by a lengthy COVID-19 quarantine, the defender broke into the starting lineup and made five full appearances. He was able to return to Danubio and move to the Red Bulls based on a contract clause triggered by foreign offers.
Monzón is decidedly raw and will likely face an adjustment process while acclimating to a new league. However, there is a lot to like about his game, particularly from a physical aspect. In blunt description, he looks like a center back, passing the nebulous but frequently accurate eye test. There’s also some mild versatility in his background, having played on the inside-left side of Danubio’s 4-4-2 and Montevideo’s 4-3-3, along with a little left-back. The former club, whether through tactics or a general ineptitude, frequently abandoned him on an island to defend one-on-one and pursue opponents to the touchline. These responsibilities will fall on him once again with the Red Bulls’ team strategy almost inviting counter-attacks by design.
In a gegenpress, the fullbacks push high up the field and when beaten, the opponent is given a fairly unencumbered run into the final third. The defense is forced to shift wide to delay penetration and ideally turn back or derail the intrusion. Role requirements include diagonal movement with NASA precision and perfectly timed tackles, not to mention consistent victory in aerial duels and serving as an outlet in possession. The relatively fleet-footed teenager performed those duties in the Primera División, displaying a preternatural ability to chart the properly angled run that wastes no steps and often outpaces his challenger by a hilarious margin. The occasional opposing winger would sneak behind him, latching onto through balls that he was unable to intercept, but some of those were a result of marking switches exacerbated by late-arriving teammates.
In the build-up, Monzón appears quite comfortable in possession and springing counter-attacks with medium-range and occasional 30-40 yard passes, a potential upgrade over the existing New York group. He has a delightful habit of stepping into a tackle, winning the ball, and immediately advancing play vertically before the opponent has been able to reset. If teammates are pressed, his typical move into open space is backward, hesitating in joining the attack and instead opting to serve as a deep-lying safety option with the time to turn and make the correct decision. When dribbling, his touch can be a bit too wild, pushing those slaloming solo runs off the menu for the time being. Although under Gerhard Struber, both Sean Nealis and Aaron Long are given the freedom to enter the final third at their discretion, a privilege that could also be extended to the new signing.
Monzón’s status as a predominantly left-footed player is also a potential asset to the Red Bulls. At past clubs, Struber relied on multiple players with the sinistral inclination. In a vertical attacking system reliant on long balls, the ability to utilize the entire field is a necessity. Forcing right-footed center backs and midfielders inward has a narrowing effect and can result in predictable one-way traffic to the more dominant side.
Coaches have praised his aggression, particularly on shoulder-to-shoulder challenges, but seven yellow cards and one red in 19 matches while at Danubio could be cause for concern. His physical play can at times be overbearing, and he would not be the first to draw the ire of referees for consistent infringement. This reckless nature of shielding and tackles with a run-up is perhaps the overcompensation of a player trying to set a physical tone or impatiently stop an attack. Whether the youthful indiscretions of a first-year professional or the unfortunate timing of a defender constantly putting out fires during a season doomed to relegation, body control and mental composure are necessary qualities to develop. If not, a partnership with Andrés Reyes has the potential to set all manner of records for disciplinary infractions.
There are also some other youthful foibles that can be coached away, mainly of a tactical and technical nature. For example, his clearances, headed in particular, are sometimes sent to the top of the box instead of directed safely out wide. Monzón can be caught ball watching or generally on the wrong side of the forward, which allows opponents to sneak in behind the back line. When engaging with onrushing dribblers, his first instinct is to give at least three yards of space in a hasty backpedal, an ungainly movement allowing far too much space for a shot. His height, just shy of 6’1”, is adequate for the position and claiming mildly contested aerial duels in and outside of the box, but he will occasionally be beaten on crosses, set pieces, and scenarios when bigger target strikers shield him off the ball.
Take for example Montevideo’s recent 2-0 loss to Cerro Lago. Striker Santiago Paiva – hardly imposing at 5’11” – was able to make Monzón look quite foolish on the second goal. Nifty footwork and improvisation by the opponent, but the center back should not have given him as much space, allowed him to receive the ball so lightly, and be turned without putting in the slightest challenge. He’s fine, almost too aggressive, when able to run into duels or chase dribblers, but MLS has dozens of target strikers that will punish weaker and stationary upright defending.
(Highlight begins at 3:40.)
The play demonstrates the nature of his game at the moment, struggling in the middle ground that requires quick thinking, nerve, and tactical savvy. When acting on reflex or completely without pressure, he is able to inflict his will upon the match and deliberately control proceedings. His elite potential is displayed chasing down a striker or having the time to make a sublime line-splitting pass. If the opponent is more direct and proactive on the attack or in pressure, his inexperience leads to mistakes and poor decision making, which is expected for a teenager occupying the field position under the most intense microscope.
Despite his flaws, Monzón has impressive qualities for a developing center back. In a vacuum, this is a fairly obvious signing for the club to make, especially in light of the loan’s length. With less than 25 professional matches under his belt, this is not the ready-made player required by a back line held together by glue and paper clips, on a team gasping the last breaths of air before submerging into the Eastern Conference bogland. Whether he should be the only defensive signing during this recently elapsed window is up for debate but wholly irrelevant to this particular bit of transfer business.
The Red Bull way is viewed scornfully by some and with curiosity by others. Monzón – a well-regarded prospect bubbling under the surface of global football but considered a potential future star for Uruguay – is the epitome of the transfer desired by this system: identified before the fortune and fame, pulled from a less-traveled scouting ground. His early emergence also fits the specifications recently shared by head of sport Kevin Thelwell, having “played senior minutes in a competitive environment by 19 years of age.” At times New York has struggled to succeed at this mode of player acquisition, striking out on the majority of speculative international signings. This could be another fruitless chapter in that ongoing saga or a figurative turning of the page. Based on the club’s commitment to youth and continued struggles at the center back position, he will at least receive the opportunity to prove himself on the field, succeeding or failing on his own merits.