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Will the Red Bulls finally turn Elias Manoel into a striker?

Everything you need to know about the team’s newest signing

Elias Manoel celebrates during his breakout performance in the Copa Sudamericana against Aragua.
Photo by MANAURE QUINTERO/AFP via Getty Images

The New York Red Bulls closed Major League Soccer’s Secondary Transfer Window with the acquisition of Elias Manoel Alves de Paula, also known as Elias Manoel…also known as Elias. The Brazilian attacker moved over from Campeonato Brasileiro Série B side Grêmio Foot-Ball Porto Alegrense, a curious and speculative short-term loan with a purchase option. The 20-year-old has experienced an interesting yet brief professional career filled with great yet unfulfilled potential, mired in back-to-back seasons of relegation spiraling and a roster logjam. While far from the gravity-shifting presence of a Gareth Bale, he may prove useful as the club attempts to survive the summer swoon and keep pace in the playoff hunt.

Growing up playing on the streets of scouting hotbed Campinas, Elias – mentored by his mother, an acclaimed local player described as “a warrior of the Amazons” – initially joined the Guarani academy alongside his younger brother. Grêmio scouted the standout during a friendly, adding him to the youth set-up in 2016. Then a right back, Elias struggled to adapt but impressed with his potential.

Eventually switching to left winger, he made his professional debut last year after overcoming “a muscle injury.” A previous coaching staff considered him “too young” despite already being 19 years old and reigning as the leading scorer at the 2019 Copa Santiago and 2020 São Paulo Cup. His breakout performance came in the Copa Sudamericana, scoring twice in nine minutes during a 6-2 demolition of Venezuela’s Aragua FC.

“For me, it was remarkable,” Elias shared on local radio. “In my life, everything went very fast. These goals in the Sudamericana marked my life. It was my professional calling card, to show everyone that I’m ready to help the team.”

Elias is described as possessing “physical strength, speed, and a high-finishing power,” which “generated a lot of expectation” at the club. Despite the initial success, he was dropped to the reserves amid Grêmio’s dire need for results and a string of personal misfortunes, reportedly dealing with another “not very serious” muscle injury, an ankle ligament issue, and a positive COVID-19 test. The flourishing prospect instead dominated the Brasileirão de Aspirantes (U-23 Championship) with the “transition team,” finding the back of the net 12 times in 12 appearances while leading Grêmio to the title. The stretch at the lower level helped him to “improve his reading and vision of the game.”

His presumed availability drew the attention of multiple clubs, including promotion-bound Botafogo. However, Grêmio slapped the cuffs on him, seeing little need to part with a player locked down until December of 2024 with a reported $100 million euro release clause. The focus remained on returning to the first team, hoping to “win many important titles” and “leave [his] mark” before heading to Europe.

After earning a few minutes at the end of the 2021 season, which ultimately ended in relegation, preparation met opportunity as several veterans departed the club, freeing up space in the lineup, notably at striker. Elias opened the next year as a rotational member of the first team and stated his bold intention of leading the Tricolor “out of Serie B.” He scored three goals in the first two rounds of the Campeonato Gaúcho state league, his momentum only disrupted by another reported positive COVID-19 test. His electric influence continued during the playoff rounds, helping claim the title with a scintillating performance in the semifinal against first-division opponent Internacional.

Elias’ adjustment to the national league was a little slower, as the “side specialist” was struggling to adapt to the striker responsibilities of “working the pivot, controlling from the back [with his] body, and doing some diagonal [runs].” Manager Roger Machado urged him to observe how teammates position themselves on deep balls. Despite two crucial early-season goals, he drew criticism for his inability to finish one-on-one opportunities, developing a reputation in local media for incredible set-up and gravity-defying, acrobatic worldies but scuffing meat-and-potatoes chances, the familiar refrain of a player who does everything right except that one thing typically demanded of the position.

Considered a part of a “new generation” for the Tricolor, Elias remained a part of the rotation and was mostly utilized as a substitute. His minutes began to dwindle toward the end of June, appearing to receive criticism as the low-scoring club pushed for a top-four position. He had issues replicating past production and form, the usual mix of looking dangerous but running into the maddening wall of PoorServiceAndBadLuckAndHittingThePostAndVAROverturnsAndNisfiresAndBadRefereeDecisionsAndOffsideCalls.

For a time, management provided support, attempting to build his confidence. “What I said to Elias at the end of the game is, ‘If the crowd doesn’t hug you, we’ll hug you; just keep working,’” said Machado. “If there is a mistake in technique, in decision-making, it is not because of desire. We all have some kind of limitation. Elias is very hardworking, very serious.”

However, fortunes change fast in Brazil as Elias reportedly “was losing ground,” being “in no mood and emotional condition because of pressure from the crowd and the label of ‘goal loser.’” Starter Diego Souza locked down the top of the formation and the winger depth chart grew increasingly impermeable with the addition of Guilherme, the recovery from injury by Jhonata Robert, and the emergence of the next crop of young prospects. A crowded locker room and on-field success provided the opportunity for some necessary balancing of the books.

A mere four years removed from winning a third Copa Libertadores title, Grêmio is attempting to toe the line between post-relegation frugality and building a bankroll for potential promotion back to Série A. In the interest of “financial health,” the club began making changes and allowing some of the more financially alluring members of the squad to depart, while also “recognizing the [need] to seek bank loans to honor maturities in the second half [of the season].” The goal is to raise around $18 million, a sum that would become more attainable with the Red Bulls activating the $1.5 million purchase clause on top of the $150,000 loan fee, 7% of which would reportedly go to Guarani.

The “dissatisfied player” in need of “new air” with a desire for minutes should receive an opportunity in MLS, provided the paperwork goes through in a timely manner. Struber appears ready to deputize anyone willing to put in a hard shift and make an impact. The Red Bulls need a jolt of excitement, which could be sourced by the Brazilian import.

Elias describes himself as a “fast player” with “good finishing,” who has primarily been deployed as a left winger and is “still learning” the center forward position. His preference is for the former spot, disliking the latter’s reliance on receiving service, but that undersells a tenacious nature manifesting in dogged pursuit of loose balls and crosses, as well as the unique magnetic attraction to fortuitous bounces harbored by the luckiest strikers. Known as a hard worker in the weight room, he is also constantly watching video, attempting to learn and improve his tactical acumen. His combination of technical ability, speed, and pure physical strength have led to comparisons to Belgian attacker Romelu Lukaku.

Elias may be a fit for the Red Bulls’ counter-attacking tactics, which have increasingly become reliant on long balls and stretching the back line. When lining up at striker, he is a “speedy nine” and not a “pivot,” preferring to receive passes in space instead of playing with his back to the goal. At 5’9”, the Brazilian is several inches below the towering Struberian archetype to lead the formation but possesses the physical and technical attributes of the demanding system.

“Elias gradually adapted to the role of center-forward due to his strength and good ball protection,” said his former youth coach, Guilherme Bossle. “He can easily do both attack roles. Even acting extreme, he is always looking to rip the last line of the opponent. The midfielder receives the ball and he rips the line, trying to give the midfielder the option to launch, which forces the opposing defense to retreat.”

The potential downsides of the move are fairly obvious, beginning with the age-old debate over whether this is a dynamic hybrid requiring a little confidence to dominate flaccid MLS defenses or a muddled, master-of-none tweener unable to fulfill responsibilities of either role. There is a desperate need for a reliable goal-scorer, but consistency has thus far eluded Elias at the senior level. While optimistically touted by the communications department as a “striker,” his frequently stated preference is for the wing and he “needs space to run and beat markers.” This could be viewed as beneficial considering Struber’s penchant for deploying strikers as ball-chasers covering the width of the field. Pacey, creative attackers who beat defenders off the dribble are a welcome addition everywhere, especially for a team lacking cohesion and intent in the final third. However, without increased production and a final product from somebody, the Red Bulls’ repetitive finishing issues will linger and render his acquisition a Stradivarius for Nero.

Perhaps more troubling is the recurrent mild injury history during a brief two-year professional career, as well as the limited window in which he is expected to integrate into the team and make an impact on the field. Future results are untethered from the past, but studying history can provide valuable lessons. Far more established attackers have failed to coalesce with the tactics, arriving with trumpeting fanfare but departing quickly and quietly. Elias’ first entry into the professional game was a failure to launch, with little evidence that four months in New York will be a smashing success. Any adjustment struggles could be exacerbated by the late hour of his arrival during a season scheduled to end earlier than usual due to the scheduling of the 2022 World Cup, rendering his loan the briefest of trials.

Unlike other speculative signings, this isn’t the case of an unwanted castoff landing in New York – Elias was playing in Brazil, just not thriving. By comparison, Léo Chú was ahead of him on the depth chart at then-Série A Grêmio before moving to MLS in the summer of 2021. He has displayed promise with the Seattle Sounders but was far from an immediate success and struggles to inflict his will upon opponents over a year into his tenure. The younger, less-experienced successor has far less sand in the hourglass, albeit for a club performing much better in the table than the Cascadians.

The New York Red Bulls’ summer 2022 transfer window, due to a paucity of signings, will be judged by Elias’ success with the club. The attacker is talented but inexperienced, a familiar long-term acquisition despite immediate needs. Success and failure might depend on his ultimate deployment, whether the great striker experiment continues in MLS or the choice is made to take advantage of his natural predisposition for winger. He appears begging for guidance from a known talent-whisperer on the level of Struber, but time will tell if the manager can assimilate the Brazilian into his squad during a condensed stretch of time while balancing teetering fortunes in the home stretch of the season.

Juan Mesa provided research and editing assistance for this post.