One last time the New York Red Bulls will field a team in the United Soccer League. Since its establishment in 2015, New York Red Bulls II have been one of the stronger teams in the league’s top division including winning the regular season and playoff title in 2016 with a loaded squad that featured the likes of Tyler Adams and Aaron Long. However, recently the results have faltered as the teams focus has shifted to a more youth-centric approach.
Though while that has shown positive results with the first team signing and debut of Daniel Edelman and Serge Ngoma, internally the immediate goal is to get the team back into the playoff hunt. This won’t be an easy task but more focus was put in to building a balanced squad from the back to the front with the playoff goal in mind. Here are three questions I have going into the season.
Who will replace Omar Sowe and Jake LaCava?
Last year Omar Sowe and Jake LaCava were the veterans on the team expected to carry alot of the offensive weight. This year they are both out on loans after signing first team deals, LaCava to league rivals Tampa Bay and Sowe to Icelandic side Breiðablik. It would have been easy to keep both with the second team and have guys with years of USL experience, however that is not the Red Bull way. In a quest to constantly be pushing players development forward it was seen best to get them in to new environments in order to develop.
This also allows the Red Bulls opportunity to assess new options in the attacking spots. New this year are Jordan Adebayo-Smith, Jonathan Filipe, draft pick O’Vonte Mullings and Venezuelan teenager Jesus Castellanos. Zach Ryan and Serge Ngoma are likely also to see extended time with Red Bulls II once all first team acquisitions arrive. Academy players Ilyia Tyrkus and Ezra Wideman are also in the hunt for minutes. On paper there is plenty to be excited about with this attack and if they gel quickly it could be strong once again. The early signs are positive with multiple goals scored in every preseason game.
Can the defense improve?
In contrast with the first team, the defense was a major problem for Red Bulls II last season. Inconsistent throughout the year with a lack of depth forcing players to play out of position, it was not a pretty sight. If New York wants to make the playoffs the defense will have to improve a ton. This year a focus was put on that side of the field with a goal of bolstering depth.
First Lamine Conte was re-signed and is eligible to play. Conte was a player they were counting on last year but visa issues meant he was not able to play. This year he his back and able to play and will be looked at as a key anchor and relative veteran in the backline. Joining him are Christopher Cragwell and Daniel De Leon. De Leon stood out in preseason and earned himself a contract while Cragwell joined on loan from Arabe Unido in Panama. Cragwell is a high upside player who will be looking to follow in the steps of guys like Amir Murillo who launched his career with the Red Bull organization. At left back Curtis Ofori looks to gain more consistent minutes and be a reliable starter at fullback. The young talent flashed his potential last year and now a year older with a season under his belt is primed to be a key piece in the backline.
The big hole is at right back and it is unknown at this time who will slot in there. It could be Ofori or possibly Cragwell. Jeremy Raffanello saw some time there last year as well though he likely is to be more involved up front. The defense is key to the success of this team. They will go as far as the defense takes them as the talent in the midfield and upfront is strong.
Who is the new coach?
This year a new coach is leading the charge after John Wolyniec stepped down from the post in the offseason. With new coach Gary Lewis the Red Bulls are getting extensive experience in the youth development scene having previously been the academy director at the Seattle Sounders and a development officer at Liverpool. Lewis also has an extensive background as an educator which provides him with a unique perspective on the game and teaching it to young players. While the Lewis hire clearly points to the new focus of youth development for the reserve team as they transition to MLS Next Pro, he will not be looking to leave the USL with a whimper. They are coming to win this season and Lewis is the man tasked with leading the fight.