When Aaron Long went down with an Achilles tendon injury in what was just the fifth game of the 2021 season, New York Red Bulls fans were distraught.
Many thought the season was over, that the already leaky defense wouldn’t be able to cope without the experienced US international after the departure of longtime partner Tim Parker. But up stepped Sean Nealis, an unheralded SuperDraft pick who had been an occasional rotation option, to steady the sinking ship. Despite not playing with a consistent center-back partner, or even a consistent formation, Nealis raised his game to match the moment and had a career season, earning a new contract and cementing his spot in this season’s squad. Fans love a good breakout star, a younger player who seemingly arrives out of nowhere and reaches a higher level to cement their place in the squad. Seeing these success stories reaffirm our love for the sport, and are something the community can rally around in spite of frequently negative results.
So the question is then asked, who will it be this year? The Red Bulls are in an interesting spot with several players hoping to rebound from stalled campaigns in 2021, along with a crew of unproven youngsters looking to place their claim on stardom in 2022.
(All cited statistics courtesy of FBRef.com)
The kid is back. Highly touted since the day he was promoted from the academy, Clark was supposed to be the Red Bulls savior, the next to make the step up from Red Bulls II and establish himself in the MLS before leaving the club on a teary-eyed flight to Europe. In a way he was a savior, revitalizing the squad’s 2020 season and showing great promise in his debut year. However 2021 was supposed to be the year that he became the anchor of the squad, the main playmaker that would lead the team to the elusive trophy on his inevitable way to Europe. But despite his promising start and mid-season signing to RB Leipzig, the appendectomy he underwent in June and the subsequent time out of the team caused him to lose his sharpness, and lead to an overall underwhelming season.
Clark is an intriguing player, having been compared to a young Clint Dempsey with regards to his positional ambiguity. He has shown an affinity for goals, often scoring in spectacular fashion, but his mediocre dribbling ability stands in the way of him establishing himself as a winger. In 2021 he only attempted a paltry 1.86 dribbles per 90 minutes, and only completed .9 dribbles per 90. The resulting successful dribble percentage of 48.4% is extremely low compared to MLS attacking midfielders and wingers, and does not suggest the type of player that you want taking on the league’s finest fullbacks. Conversely, his passing last season was not quite midfield level, completing only 69.8%. Part of his struggles could be attributed to the general offensive stagnation that the Red Bulls suffered last season, but the numbers show a player who is halfway between being a traditional 8 and 10.
This pick does feel like cheating but as the player with the highest upside on the roster, great things are expected of Clark that have not quite arrived yet. If Gerhard Struber can find a way to fit him into his system more than he was able to in 2021, Clark could be one of the top players in the country, whether he settles on a balanced midfield role or a more attacking one.
Former US youth international Cameron Harper was a curious case in 2021, having been signed with great excitement from Celtic, but quickly falling out of favor with Struber. He received a string of substitute appearances at the start of the season, but that promptly ended after an embarrassing ordeal in the team’s first game in New England last year, where he entered the game in the 59th minute before being taken off in the 85th. After this he saw only 23 minutes in the first team for the rest of the season, making the occasional appearance in USL play.
Considered by the coaching staff to be too raw for consistent top-level play, Harper’s struggles were accentuated by the lack of available playing time in his natural position. Harper describes himself as a player who can play on either wing and striker, someone who is direct and can “make things happen”. However Struber did not really play with wingers last season, preferring a more conservative approach with wide midfielders that provided defensive support and stretched the field.
Much of the discourse this offseason has been what formation the team will play this year, the 3-5-2 that Struber used at Barnsley and attempted to varying success last year, the 5-4-1 that was adopted at the end of last season due to personnel constraints, or the 4-4-2 diamond that was used at the outset of Struber’s tenure in New York. Transfer trends and media coverage have pointed towards the 3-5-2, which is worrying for Harper as it uses wing-backs rather than wingers. Contrasting to Caden Clark, who is stuck between positions, Harper may well find himself without one.
However Struber is not one to shy away from experimentation, and the hole at right wingback may provide a window for Harper to burst through. At the moment the only options at the position are new signings Dylan Nealis, who hasn’t shown much attacking promise in his brief MLS career, and Lewis Morgan, who traditionally plays as an attacking midfielder but sometimes played wingback for Inter Miami. Even rumored returnee Tom Edwards is more of a traditional right-back, not someone who would be driving down the flank to put a cross in like wingbacks do. The winger to wingback conversion is a common one, with players like Adama Traore and Ivan Perisic using the similarities between the positions’ required skillsets to play at both. Harper is a highly technical player who will likely be tried at wingback throughout the season, and if he performs well he could become a mainstay at a key position in Struber’s system.
The departure of club captain and fan favorite Sean Davis was one of the biggest surprises of the offseason, one that opens up a realm of questions for the staff. Davis played every minute of the year as the team’s deep-lying midfielder, and carried the team through another difficult year. The squad didn’t have a natural backup last season, so Struber and his staff will have to find someone else to take over the vital position. While new Homegrown signing Daniel Edelman is a more natural replacement, his inexperience may influence Struber to look to his existing squad for now.
Former number one SuperDraft pick Frankie Amaya has had a mixed time at the Red Bulls after his trade from FC Cincinnati. Primarily an attacking midfielder in college, he was used to great success as a destroyer in his early MLS days. His defensive output was a great help to a notably leaky Cincinnati defense, and his tackling, interception, and pressuring numbers were all in the top 10% of MLS midfielders in 2019 and 2020. After his trade to the Red Bulls these numbers have declined, primarily due to his return to a more attacking midfield spot that he eventually lost to Caden Clark and Dru Yearwood.
But with the reopening of the defensive midfield spot, Amaya’s defensive capabilities could influence Struber into trying him there. His creative aptitude could also serve him as he tries to replicate Davis’ deep-lying playmaker ability. If given the chance at the position, Amaya’s well-rounded skillset could be a massive asset to the squad and an opportunity to cement himself.
Hear me out.
The oft-maligned Missouri native has not had the smoothest of careers, with fans bashing him for his frequent misplayed finishes and using him as a scapegoat in every negative Red Bulls performance. Characterized as something of a defensive striker by observers, Struber has seen the value of his pressing ability when closing out games. He is frequently substituted on to close out results and force mistakes through chasing tired center-backs, and does this to great effect. Despite not historically being a prolific goalscorer at the senior level, Barlow has found himself in the squad time and time again due to his workrate and athletic ability.
Striker has been an issue for the Red Bulls in recent years, last season’s duo of Patryk Klimala and Fabio not working as well as the team would have hoped. Struber has shown a leaning towards playing with two strikers, and with Fabio’s departure and the likelihood of a 3-5-2 being played this year a spot is open to partner Klimala as a starting striker. At the moment the other options are the inexperienced but prolific USL scorer Omar Sowe, promising draft pick O’Vonte Mullings, and homegrown Zach Ryan.
With at least one of the latter two likely to spend the season with RBII, it’s highly likely that the more experienced Barlow will be given the nod alongside Klimala. This may come to the disdain of many supporters, but his underrated ability and desire to prove himself may make him one of the dark horses to lead the Red Bulls attack. This is the biggest opportunity the Missouri native has ever had in the squad, and if he is able to grab it it would complete one of the greatest redemption arcs in club history.