Despite the presumption of stability at the striker position, the New York Red Bulls appear to have attempted to add another player to the depth chart.
According to Croatian news outlet Dnenvo, the club had an offer rejected by Dinamo Zagreb striker Sandro Kulenović. The 21-year-old youth international was also receiving interest from Nottingham Forest, Sochi, St. Truiden, and Maribor. However, he opted to stay local and is now on loan at NK Lokomotiva Zagreb in the second division, hoping for an increase in playing time.
Kulenović is a somewhat highly-rated player who has been a fixture of the Croatia youth national teams, occasionally touted as “the new Mario Mandžukić.” He came up through the talent factory that is the Zagreb academy before moving to Legia Warsaw in Poland. Italian super club Juventus brought him in on loan in 2017 but opted against a permanent deal.
In his first professional season in Poland, he scored four goals in 25 total appearances before returning to Zagreb. Unfortunately, his debut with the Modri (Blues) was fruitless, as the striker was unable to find the back of the net in 16 matches. The next year, Kulenović went on loan to first-tier side HNK Rijeka, producing at a much more respectable rate of eight in 38. The recent temporary move to the second division in spite of reported interest from bigger clubs begs questions of his overall career trajectory, but, at 21 years old, time is still relatively on his side.
A young 6’3” striker clearly fits the desired physical characteristics for the Red Bulls’ tactical strategy, backed by the additional evidence of Gerhard Struber’s long-term pursuit across multiple transfer windows. Last fall, the manager’s former club, Barnsley FC, “went pretty far down the road” with Kulenović, but “at the last moment [he] pulled out” despite building on a “record bid” in the summer of 2019. Talent recruitment was a widely publicized issue for the Austrian at the English Championship club, which appears to be repeating in New York with the very same players.
Kulenović would have been an intriguing signing that continued the Red Bulls’ pattern of attempting to revive of once-glorified youth prospects with a high pedigree. His development has clearly stalled or at least not continued along the desired ascent, as evidenced by repeat inclusion on squads for both the 2019 and 2021 UEFA Under-21 Euros. Whether his career and potential would have experienced a revival in MLS will forever remain a hypothetical, his name an increasingly meaningless footnote occasionally referenced in the odd article or social media post. While he has once again turned down Struber, who clearly has some influence over transfers, the reported pursuit might hold greater significance or meaning.
Despite signing Fábio and Patryk Klimala, head of sport Kevin Thelwell is attempting to upgrade the squad, a reasonable move considering the lack of scoring and the general truism that sitting still is the same as falling behind. Unfortunately, the Red Bulls have once again missed on one of these targets for unexplained reasons, adding Kulenović to a growing list that includes Ivan Toney, Sead Hakšabanović, and Eric Kahl. For a club that is not pursuing big name players or throwing around headline-garnering fees, more of these under-the-radar transfers likely need to be completed for the club to achieve any measure of success in the near future.