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Gary Lewis: Red Bulls II job is to develop players

Reserves manager speaks with OaM about Baby Bulls’ struggles in the table and success in bolstering the first team

SOCCER: MAY 14 USL - New York Red Bulls II at Hartford Athletic
Jeremy Rafanello (left) and Steven Sserwadda have been bright spots for Red Bulls II this year, with the latter making the step up to first team status.
Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If one was hoping New York Red Bulls II to honor what will be its final season in the United Soccer League structure with a repeat of the 2016 run to the title, they’ve been greatly disappointed. 15 games through the second division season, the Baby Bulls sit at the bottom of the USL Championship with only 6 points. It’s clear barring an incredible turn of form that this team is not going to be competing for a playoff spot — so why is this reserve team season being viewed as a success by the club?

“I consider myself a player developer more than a coach,” says Gary Lewis, the Englishman who took over as Red Bulls II manager this past winter after the departure of John Wolyniec, the only head coach in the modern history of the club’s reserve program.

“That was the idea of bringing me in here. That we can develop players again from a first team perspective and a return-on-investment perspective.”

The Red Bulls II role is technically the first senior management role for Lewis, who was headhunted for the New York operation earlier this year on the back of his work as a youth coach at some of the highest levels of Europe and North America. Most recently the academy director at MLS Western Conference titans Seattle Sounders, Lewis moved to the burgeoning U.S. youth scene after a career as a development official with his hometown club Liverpool FC.

The hiring of a figure like Lewis is an intuitive move as the Red Bulls go just as young with their reserve team as they’ve said they would over the last year. The arrival of new academy director Sean McCafferty from FC Barcelona’s Arizona operation in 2019 and new head of sport Kevin Thelwell from Wolverhampton Wanderers a year later saw the two development gurus overhaul a New York pipeline that had run dry in the years following the crowning achievement of Tyler Adams and his move to RB Leipzig in late 2018.

A look at the issues with Red Bulls II in league play this year show the telltale signs of a younger team still learning how to manage game states and emotional stress in matches against full adult sides.

  • Frequent red cards and resulting lack of lineup continuity.
  • Mistakes in situational and spatial awareness, particularly when outmatched physically in either box.
  • Roster is thin to encourage movement from below so any absences are felt quickly.
  • Roster build shifted away from more experienced 4-year college winners to more academy and residency players and balance isn’t right for growing USL.
  • Not getting more seasoned players from the first team like they used to partly due to a knock-down effect of the first team’s injury issues.

In the meantime, the team under Lewis has been thriving in it’s newly-emphasized objective — progressing players to first team readiness. Using the same 3-5-2-ish setup that Gerhard Struber has adapted the first team to, the club’s aggressive pressing tactics might be luring the Baby Bulls into card trouble but are getting them conditioned for the higher levels.

So while results are disheartening it is a byproduct of a new direction one focused on individual player development and a younger streamlined roster. A closer look at the games shows the perils of youth. Costly mistakes defensively and poor decision making in the final third in crucial moments have been the difference in many games between a tie and win or a tie and a loss. So while this Red Bulls II team is not elite it has quite a few players who could become elite MLS players and beyond. This is ultimately the end goal for the organization as much as it may pain those who enjoy following the reserves to hear.

“The idea is to produce players…the focus is on on the ones we think are really an opportunity to go through the pathway. So that’s constantly happening, individual work on the field, individual video, lots of video with them on what we can do better. Using our first team video with the player in their position. This is how he does it. These are the kinds of things you need to replicate”

On these terms it’s hard to deny the club hasn’t been successful in the early months under Lewis. Cameron Harper was given USL time at right wingback before he began getting minutes at the role with the first team with productive results over the last month. Academy standout Daniel Edelman has arrived in the first team with efficient debuts as a substitute and starter, while Uganda international Steven Sserwadda had an eye-catching first team debut as a substitute in Wednesday’s 3-0 derby defeat of NYCFC in the Open Cup. Jason Pendant has seen a return to rotational first team minutes after last year’s exile and Colombian teen Juan Castillo has emerged as a trustworthy bench option after both have been trained in a hybrid left-sided defender role.

There could be even more debutants before the season’s end. O’vonte Mullings, the Canadian draft pick who is being converted from a striker into a wingback, looks better each game as he is taught the position. Academy teen Sam Williams has solidified the midfield at points and could play himself out of college offers and right into a pro contract.

Lewis and the team’s focus on individual development over team results is likely here to stay. So what is next and what is about to change about Red Bulls II?

As mentioned before, 15 games into the year the team is in dead last in the league with only one win to its name. It hasn’t been pretty and the complaints and inquests are understandable. From the start Red Bull were the opposite of most MLS reserve teams in USL. They were more competitive, winning it all in 2016 followed by back to back trips to the conference final. New York Red Bulls II were in class among themselves as far as reserve teams go. However, since the pandemic Red Bulls II have fallen from such status, with 2019 being the final season in the playoffs.

Much has changed in that time both in the structure of the New York Red Bulls and the American soccer landscape. The top USL division has boomed, growing from a 3rd division league using MLS reserve squads to fill out the map and schedule for a 2nd division licensing campaign all the way to the heights of today — an organization running a full pyramid from the 4th all the way to the 2nd divisions in America.

They have also seen the shape of their leagues evolve with new independent clubs that have captured the imaginations of their local market making the small crowds at reserve teams a bad and less necessary look. The level on the field and in the financial ledgers has risen significantly in a short time. The collapse of the NASL filled the league with solid veterans, while the growth of USL academies and it being seen as a more viable place to play within the foreign market keeps pushing the level higher and higher.

The shift under McCafferty and Thelwell towards younger players and individual development is distinct from the initial build style at Red Bulls II. When the reserves were first officially organized in the mid-2010s, the rosters were much older and more mature. In the championship-winning season young up and comers supplemented more seasoned college and professional players. The likes of Tyler Adams and Derrick Etienne were surrounded by fully-grown adults with pro experience such as Aaron Long and Ryan Meara as well as older international college players like Florian Valot, Vincent Bezecourt and Speedy Williams who were all in their mid 20s.

The team has still shown some interest in having a veteran or two around as a mentor and auxiliary training ground coach, as many youth-focused reserve teams worldwide often do. The team signed Red Bulls academy alum and lower league journeyman Adam Najem to a 25-day contract last month, but the continued emphasis on churning the roster likely means a short spell in the program.

“Adam has been great to be fair, he’s been in everyday and he trains with us all the time. And just that he’s around the place and he’s an ex-Red Bull player. We just felt it was, you know, it was best for the group to bring him in and just get a little bit of experience around the players.”

“We need to have that conversation again, if we’re going to move forward. Kind of the plan we have is to produce younger players and Adam’s 27 now so that conversation needs to be had in house to see if he’ll benefit us moving forwards and do we see projections to the first team and that’s where we need to be. We need to be bringing players in from a budget point of view and the roster spot point of view with the future in mind.”

As Red Bull transitions into MLS Next Pro over the next year, the team they are currently fielding should become more competitive and sit on a better platform for what they are looking to build. Instead of being a finishing school for older prospects like it was for an Aaron Long or a Tom Barlow, fine-tuning them to be ready to fit the system, it is now a stepping stone towards the first team and not always the final step — as shown in the loan-outs of RB2 regulars Jake LaCava and Omar Sowe to get tests in more senior environments at Tampa Bay Rowdies and Icelandic club Breiðablik, respectively. It is also a place to convert young high upside talent from outside the organization to new positions where they can make an impact on the first team.

In short, the project has evolved.