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What is the Red Bulls defense going to look like in 2022?

The return of Aaron Long raises as many questions as answers for a backline that’s already proven formidable

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at New York Red Bulls
Aaron Long is finally back — which adds more questions to a Red Bulls team re-tooling for 2022.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, as the team settles into preseason training camp in Florida and the fanbase gets a little restless in the Tri State Area, a bit of welcome news trickled in for the New York Red Bulls. After spending the bulk of the month training with the United States national team before being left off the World Cup qualifying roster, a fit Aaron Long rejoined the Red Bulls for the first time since May of last year.

With his 21 international caps and status as the last remaining starter from the 2018 Supporters Shield-winning campaign, the 29-year-old center back is still the team’s most prominent player and the clear front-runner to be captain following the exit of Sean Davis. But on a pure technical level Long is returning from his nine-month achilles disaster less as savior, but as reinforcement. As important as Long continues to be for the club, it’s easy to forget the team still managed to be one of the league’s leading defenses last year in his absence — and how Gerhard Struber fits Long into his already-elite defensive structure could be one of the keys to New York’s 2022 season.

Despite missing Long since his injury in May against Philadelphia, Gerhard Struber’s Red Bulls team were one of the league’s most difficult teams to score against last season. Unheralded third-year reserve Sean Nealis and newly-signed Colombian standout Andres Reyes quickly adapted to Struber’s complex and aggressive rest defense structure and anchored a backline that allowed only 33 goals in 34 games, tied with Nashville and Seattle for stingiest in the entire league.

While the Nealis-Reyes pairing remained a constant through the remainder of 2022, the structure surrounding them remained in flux until the season ended with the Jakob Glesnes screamer in Chester. Earlier in the year, the defense was arranged in a conventional four-man line backstopping Struber’s initial diamond formation — a setup made easier with the solid play of loaned center back/fullback hybrids Tom Edwards and Andrew Gutman. But as the season went on and struggles in the final third increasingly forced the team to rely on right back Kyle Duncan for attacking verve, Struber deployed Duncan further upfield in a 3 or 5-man backline, with Edwards or Gutman becoming an extra center back. Such a formation not only allowed Duncan to get forward, it gave all three athletic center backs license to attack the ball, adding coherence and tightening space in Struber’s intricate pressing system.

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls
John Tolkin, Sean Nealis, and goalkeeper Carlos Coronel were crucial parts of an elite Red Bulls defense in 2021.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As clear as New York’s scoring struggles were last year, having a reliable defense is typically a better starting point for a rebuilding squad. But with Duncan having exited for Belgium and Long re-entering the mix, replicating last year’s defensive formula is less than straight-forward. How Struber sets up the backline this year will be crucial to how the rest of the team can build out the attack.

It’s possible, with the benefit of a full preseason and a new offensive building block in Lewis Morgan, that Struber feels comfortable attempting the 4-4-2 diamond again. Such a setup would increase the defensive responsibilities of Tolkin, but could also fit the skillset of highly-touted left-footed Uruguayan Lucas Monzon, who earned fringe minutes after signing from Danubio last year.

But the return and assumed fitness of Long would make a continuation of the formation with three center backs the most intuitive way to fit the squad’s top personnel onto the field without having to sacrifice one of Nealis and Reyes. But while a defender as athletic and comfortable on the ball as Long scans as the ideal middle man in a three-center back formation, there are risks to returning to such a setup. A backline featuring three conventional tall center backs with a tendency to fall back is different from the three-man setup the Red Bulls flourished with in late 2022, one that typically featured mobile and aggressive fullbacks Edwards or Gutman in one of the wide center back positions.

A backline with three center backs and two fullbacks would also require quality and depth in the latter positions that the Red Bulls had last year and don’t at the moment. Although Tom Edwards is reportedly close to a return, the team is still plotting how to replace the minutes left behind by other defensive wide men Gutman and Duncan. While John Tolkin earned plaudits for his precocious play on the left side and the trade for recent 2nd overall SuperDraft pick Dylan Nealis remains an intriguing piece of the puzzle being assembled in New York, fullback depth should surely remain a priority for Struber and sporting chief Kevin Thelwell as the season inches closer.

One name some of the more astute readers will probably be screaming out by this point is Jason Pendant, the French left back signed at the opening of the 2020 season who failed to establish himself in the lineup and was rarely even dressed let alone deployed by Struber in 2021. Pendant and his $320,000 salary are still on the roster, serving as a reminder not only of the disoriented transfer strategy Thelwell was hired to overhaul but of the difficulties of scouting and securing defensive talent in a rapidly-advancing league where the level of play is not obvious.

While high-profile acquisitions such as Aurelien Collin and Tim Parker have been crucial as the final keystones of successful past defensive units, the vast majority of successful Red Bulls defensive recruits in recent times have been draftees and trialists such as Long, Nealis, and Duncan. Defenders granted time to learn the club’s complex pressing tactics from the inside without immediate pressure are perhaps better fits than expensive imports. While an established senior pro would surely be welcomed by coach and fans alike, there’s little reason to believe that a player like Curtis Ofori, the Red Bulls II fullback training with the first team in Florida this month, couldn’t make the step up that Aaron Long and many others have.