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A couple or three things: success in San Jose

What we learned from the successful opening day few expected

SOCCER: FEB 26 MLS - New York Red Bulls at San Jose Earthquakes
Lewis Morgan had an eye-catching Red Bulls debut in San Jose.
Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Red Bulls opened their 2022 season with an exclamation point victory on the road against San Jose. With the dust now settled on one of the more chaotic weeks in recent club history, OaM lays out a few things we learned…

The three-man backline is here to stay — and might be even better

After preseason speculation about either a 4-3-3 or a potential return to the 4-4-2 used for stretches of last season, Gerhard Struber continued with the fluid formation built in front of three center backs used for the later parts of 2022.

All three New York center backs — brothers Dylan and Sean Nealis plus the returning Aaron Long — were aggressive in stepping to midfield to press and intercept. But while the Nealises (Neali?) largely stayed in front of the penalty area, Long’s mobility and intelligence on the right side of the backline allowed him to adeptly patrol the wide areas, freeing wingback Lewis Morgan to join the attack frequently.

(Charts courtesy of MLSSoccer.com and WhoScored)

The speedy and incisive Morgan’s New York debut was an auspicious one, notching an assist on Patryk Klimala’s opener, delivering set pieces, and earning praise from his coach and teammates. With winger Luquinhas and utility defender Tom Edwards on the way pending visa approvals, the potency of Struber’s options in the formation will only increase in the weeks to come.

The youth movement is getting even younger

Though the offseason saw the Red Bulls go slightly older with their first team transfer targets than 2021’s mad dash to lower the squad’s age at the start of a rebuild, youth development is still clearly on the agenda for Struber. John Tolkin picked up where he left off in 2021 with a lively 90 minutes at left back and Caden Clark began what is technically his second stint with the Red Bulls by assisting Tom Barlow for the victory cigar goal in stoppage time.

But the grandest gesture came when teenagers Serge Ngoma and Daniel Edelman each made their MLS debuts, with Ngoma tying Eddie Gaven to become the club’s youngest-ever debutant at just 16 years and 232 days old. The duo’s insertion to the match with a one-goal lead to defend was a bold choice by Struber, and a viral video of a Red Bulls academy team excitedly cheering their peers’ debuts was a powerful piece of imagery affirming the club’s ethos.

Denis Hamlett is back in charge and already at work

The uncertainty created by Struber’s comments this week that his team had endured a “difficult” winter transfer season were put in even starker terms days later when the news emerged that head of sport Kevin Thelwell had left the club for Everton of the English Premier League. When asked about the situation post-match, Struber said that he has a “big trust” and good relationship with sporting director Denis Hamlett, who returns to the top of the front office administration in Thelwell’s absence.

Hamlett appears to have already been active, with a small allocation intake from Houston agreed for homegrown goalkeeper Xavier Valdez on Sunday morning. Struber said that he and Hamlett are working on “one or two” more signings in the opening weeks of the season with the transfer window open until May. With the loan deal for English striker Ashley Fletcher being wrapped up, it’s likely the final signing for New York will be either a defensive midfielder or defender, after Struber pinpointed both positions as thin in his press conference comments this week.