While they might not yet be the blockbusters and big names some fans are baying for, the New York Red Bulls have been busy filling out their depth chart as preseason gets underway.
On Thursday the Red Bulls made three different varieties of youth signings, inking Zach Ryan, Jesús Castellano, and Jake LaCava to MLS contracts. However, the status of each player’s origin and immediate future differs significantly in ways that bring the club’s plans more into focus.
First chronologically was the signing of Ryan, the Stanford forward and former PAC-12 player of the year. As covered by OaM’s Eric Friedlander earlier this week, Ryan is a physical forward with experience in the Red Bull system through his academy history. Ryan is currently training with the first team in Florida, but the press release quoted Gerhard Struber in stating he will being as more of a Red Bulls II project. Ryan becomes one of the increasingly rare four-year college players to sign with MLS and particularly the Red Bulls, and is currently set to compete with Tom Barlow and Omar Sowe for minutes understudying Patryk Klimala at the top of the formation.
Similarly tagged for RB2 was Jesús Castellano, who becomes the club’s third teenage Venezuelan midfield signing in the last five offseasons. Castellano, an attack-minded midfielder who was described by sporting chief Kevin Thelwell as having “sound technical abilities and a creative mind,” will be arriving on his 18th birthday March 22 via first division club Yaracuyanos FC, where he played his first 300 minutes of professional soccer in 2021. Curiously, this is a slightly more impressive résumé than Wikelman Carmona, who had only played for an independent youth academy before hitting the field in New York’s season opener against Kansas City last year.
The final and perhaps most intriguing piece of business by the Red Bulls on Thursday was the first team signing of third-year Red Bulls II forward Jake LaCava to an MLS contract — before he was immediately loaned to Tampa Bay Rowdies of the USL Championship. As the Red Bulls II project continues getting younger as the MLS Next era approaches, it is likely a shrewd move by the front office to test their prospects out in a different environment (at an actual club with wins and losses more at stake) rather than have them go through the motions in Montclair for year three or four.
Perhaps most curious about each deal is that they put a new spin on Thelwell’s “try before you buy” approach laid out last season as the club piled up loan signings through the uncertainty of the covid pandemic. Each player has a guaranteed contract only through the 2022 MLS season, followed by multiple years of every Red Bull fan’s favorite sports contract mechanism — options. Perhaps Thelwell sees such strategy as a way of extended low-risk trials for desperate potential diamonds in the rough such as now Switzerland-based Issiar Dramé. Signing good players isn’t easy, and in MLS getting the contracts of unsuccessful players off your books is even more difficult. Nonetheless, a three-year option setup in quite unusual, particular with three players on the same day. If it does indeed become a theme of Red Bulls recruitment, one must hope enough players remain willing to sign such deals.
Meanwhile, the club has settled in for preseason camp in Florida and even the established first teamers have provided a glimpse of the new horizons ahead as well. Last year’s big ticket transfer Patryk Klimala will be switching his jersey number from 10 to 9, while Scottish winger Lewis Morgan will take over the heavy 10 shirt. In addition to emphasizing the expectations on Morgan, the team’s most high profile signing so far this offseason, the number selection implies the Scottish international will be playing as more of a forward or attacking midfielder rather than as a wingback as speculated in some circles following his acquisition from Inter Miami last month.
While all three of the club’s younger signings of Thursday are the types of healthy moves at the bottom of the roster that a confident club with a long-term outlook makes, with over a month still to go before a regular season match there remains a cacophony of unknowns in the Red Bulls’ 2022 setup. While loans and option-based contracts are certainly a sound way to mitigate such factors, most will continue to expect more substantial pieces to enter the picture in this transfer window before truly knowing what to expect from the club in a pivotal 2022.