Was the halfway point of the 34-game MLS season technically a couple weeks ago? Sure.
Are the New York Red Bulls lining up extra games in the cup and postseason left and right with their solid play? Seems so.
So we’ll go ahead and mark now, ahead of the team’s 20th league game of 2022, as the halfway point of a season that has developed a much broader scope than last year for the Red Bulls. It’s been a successful enough season that singling out award winners is the best kind of difficult, but I did my best:
Player of the year: Frankie Amaya
At the end of last season it wasn’t entirely clear that Frankie Amaya had a future in New York at all. Just months after the former first overall SuperDraft pick was acquired from Cincinnati for a seven-digit allocation fee, he had been largely exiled from Gerhard Struber’s regular starting rotation in a Red Bull footballing environment where such status often means imminent departure.
But in 2022 the 21-year-old has been a revelation in the engine room of a first place New York side. As written by Justin Sousa in OaM earlier this year, Amaya’s quality on both sides of the ball has added danger to a Red Bulls midfield that had been somewhat static in 2021. The Californian has proven to be a tenacious presser and tackler after a year of training in the energy drink style of play, and his ball-carrying ability has added a needed extra dimension to an attack that can often get lost in the longball game.
After a 2021 season where Amaya sometimes struggled to keep up with the fitness demands of Struber’s tactics, he has missed only one league game this season — a suspension following a red card against New England in April. Following that game where the Red Bulls managed to steal a victory following his ejection, Amaya tweeted what could be a fitting motto for the season — “good shit for the boys holding down” — as his play symbolizes a New York team that has learned to grind and win in 2022.
Newcomer of the year: Luquinhas
At the end of 2021, as the New York Red Bulls ended their season in a brutal goal drought where the team’s stifling front-footed defensive structure nonetheless kept them in the playoff hunt, it was clear that the team needed not just production in the final third, but something of x-factor as Gerhard Struber often put it. The Austrian’s first full season as New York manager had seen a revamped Red Bull-style pressing scheme implemented but the team’s ability to turn the resulting transition moments into chances was lacking.
Then towards the end of the winter offseason, as his financially-squeezed Polish club became more customer-friendly, Luquinhas was signed as New York’s most heralded transfer since the heady days of KakuWatch in 2018. Much like when Kaku appeared to sprinkle magic dust onto a Red Bulls team that eventually powered its way to the Supporters Shield, Luquinhas has been the spark New York’s offense needed in late 2021.
But even outside the attack, it’s his work turning the tenor of matches in the team’s favor on and off the ball that’s made the Brazilian such a valuable addition. His nimble dribbling not only creates overloads and openings in the final third but also stretches and exhausts opposing midfields, while his work against the ball has often sparked attacks he doesn’t finish like in the aforementioned New England match. Though he has already earned unwanted attention from opposition hard men, his ability to draw fouls has improved New York’s ability to both attack on set pieces and set the tempo. Lucas Lima Linhares has proven to be everything the Red Bulls could have dreamed of from a splashy attacking midfield signing.
Most improved player: Cameron Harper
Not unlike his former youth teammate Amaya, Scottish-Californian wide man Cameron Harper saw his debut season in New York end in the apparent doghouse. Seemingly without a clear role in the narrow formation used by Gerhard Struber for much of 2021, the Glasgow Celtic youth product saw only occasional minutes — including the worst type of box score appearance in Foxboro where he was substituted after coming on a substitute himself.
But in 2022, the 20-year-old has recovered from lingering injury issues to provide a direct attacking force from a slightly new position. Advertised as a potential striker during his early months in New York, Harper has since been re-trained as a wingback in Struber’s five-man backline system. As Harper himself has said, the new role has allowed him to simplify his attacking approach and use his pacy dribbling skills to create danger from the right side. Harper has a goal and three assists in all competitions since re-emerging with the first team in May, and has proven to be a crucial depth piece in what’s been a successful season.
Goal of the season: Lewis Morgan vs DC United
While a pair of lobbed goals by Luquinhas have served as exclamation points of the Brazilian’s breakout season, it was a volleyed finish by a different New York newcomer that takes the ribbon for best goal of 2022. After Luquinhas had already raised the roof with his chip over veteran DC United keeper Bill Hamid on May 28, it was going to take something special to steal the headlines — and Lewis Morgan delivered. The Scottish winger, acquired from Inter Miami in the offseason and leading the team in overall scoring, collected a poor flicked clearance by a DC defender and twisted his body expertly to pick the ball out of the air and crank a laser beam past Hamid from 30 yards out.
Individual performance of the season: Lewis Morgan vs Toronto
While we’re on the subject of Morgan — who has a case of his own against both Amaya for player of the year and Luquinhas for best newcomer — his hat trick against Toronto in March was a crucial tone-setter for New York’s season. Finding himself on the end of three separate layoffs from a beastly Patryk Klimala putting on an exhibition of his own inside-out center forward play, Morgan put his assured technical power on display with two long-range blasts followed by a breakaway finish that made for a cathartic first half on the road in Ontario.
Team performance of the season: 3-0 Open Cup quarterfinal win over NYCFC
With the Red Bulls now having followed through in the following weeks to reach the top of the conference in the league, it’s hard not to pinpoint their emphatic 3-0 tactical and spiritual dismantling of derby rivals NYCFC in the Open Cup quarterfinals as the moment the club re-planted its flag at the top of MLS. A comprehensive victory featuring dominant pressing, direct attacks, and even the debut of a new youth talent, it was everything the team seeks to be in a single performance.
Who would be your picks for RBNY midseason awards? Sound off in the comments below…