Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…but Sean Nealis has signed a new contract with the New York Red Bulls.
On Thursday the club announced that the center back had been awarded his second new deal in two seasons after his rapid and unexpected growth into a first team staple. The 25-year-old native of Massapequa, Long Island has played every match for the Red Bulls in 2022 save for one missed due to a red card suspension, and has captained the team on multiple occasions when Aaron Long has been absent.
It’s been an unusual run for both Nealis and a Red Bulls organization that typically grows their internal talent in more formal environments at a younger age. First arriving with the Red Bulls as a late round local boy draft pick from Hofstra in 2019, Nealis was largely an afterthought in his rookie season, spending most of the year in the Red Bulls II setup while the first team descended into mediocrity under the Chris Armas administration.
By the time Nealis finally received more regular first team action in 2020, it was unclear whether he was long-term prospect or just a warm body making up the numbers in an aborted pandemic season. But in the Gerhard Struber era Nealis has been a revelation for the club, emerging as a steady, reliable tentpole of one of the league’s top defensive units.
After the injury loss of Aaron Long for the majority of 2021, Nealis rose to the occasion as New York conceded the fewest goals in the league that year, and has kept his regular status in the team as the Red Bulls have enjoyed a more comfortable 2022 league campaign. Unsurprisingly dominant in the air with his 6’4” frame, Nealis has also made strides in improving his movement in Struber’s backline known for its intense lateral shifting. His calm decision-making on the ball has also been an asset as the team has attempted to build from the back more at points of the season.
All in all, the unexpected success of Nealis — who, unlike his heavily-scouted younger brother Dylan, never played above high school and town club level as a youth — is a testament to the rising level of the rank-and-file American player. The idea of an obscure 4-year NCAA player becoming a first team pillar is not very appetizing to the contemporary MLS fan, but Nealis is proof that such players are at a much more sophisticated level than they were in past generations.
The re-signing of Nealis also signals that the Red Bulls are finally in motion under a new front office regime after an awkward 2022 following the departure of Kevin Thelwell to Everton in February. Long-standing sporting director Denis Hamlett was quoted in Thursday’s press release about the Nealis deal, but the announcement comes one day after left back John Tolkin was himself given a new contract, with a quote (and video clip) from Thelwell’s replacement Jochen Schneider.
Schneider finally arrived in New York at the end of the summer after visa hang-ups, and stated in his introductory press availability in August that there was still an onboarding process for him to undergo before making big decisions. This week’s locking down of half the New York backline seems to imply this process has been completed, and Schneider is starting to put together his vision of the club’s future.