While the Red Bulls are in Florida dealing with more cancelled friendlies, their reserve team has been assembled in New Jersey over the past week. Red Bulls II are undergoing a more substantial preseason than usual, with COVID-19 protocols leaving a smaller group than usual able to spend preseason traveling with the first team. But these undesirable circumstances have expanded Red Bull’s room to experiment with taking the club’s developmental side in an even younger direction than before.
Ahead of an April 30th USL season opener, Red Bulls II announced its preseason plans and roster. As was the case last year the team is getting increasingly young with many academy players on the roster. While last season the youth shift could be explained as a byproduct of pandemic reality, Kevin Thelwell has been pointing Red Bulls II in a younger direction since arriving in New York last year. In years past you had a few academy players mixed in with a group of mostly first and second-year professionals coming out of the college ranks. Last year began a flipping of that model seeing the team being made up of primarily academy players and graduates with a handful of college players mixed in, with former Barcelona-tied teenager Caden Clark making the most prominent jump from preseason trialist to first team starter.
Sam Joseph and Andrew Noel are two academy goalies currently in camp. Joseph joined the academy in the fall from Albion SC in San Diego, an early example of the Red Bulls pouncing on the recently-relaxed academy territory rules. Joseph appears to be a prized get for the program, being called “well-rounded, calm in possession and showed a great ability to come up with big plays” by new Red Bulls II goalkeeper coach and former academy goalkeeping coach Jeremy Proud.
Noel meanwhile is a local veteran of the academy program. He is a tall lanky goalie with solid shot stopping skills. At this time the expectation should be that Luca Lewis and SuperDraft pick A.J. Marucci (both with the first team in Florida) will be the primary goalies this season. The former Torino reserve player Lewis should provide a steadier pair of hands for Red Bulls II who were unable to find stability at the position last year.
If there was an area of the lineup that struggled as much if not more than the goalies last season it was the defense. This year the only player returning is academy player Joey Zalinsky. Zalinsky impressed at the end of the season when given the opportunity to play spot minutes. He showed his passing range as well as his ability to break lines. An undersized CB standing at about 5-10, Zalinsky was mostly an outside back at academy level but is athletic and not afraid to throw his body in to a tackle.
Joining Zalinsky from the academy is Tim Timchenko. Timchenko joined in the fall from Black Rock FC, a top academy in New England that often hosts many of the top prep school players. Among Black Rock’s alumni is Jack Harrison, formerly of New York City FC and currently of Leeds United. Before Black Rock Timchenko had also played with the Dynamo Moscow academy in Russia. Timchenko is a natural center back with good height and athleticism. He was spotted training with the first team earlier this month at East Hanover and is one to watch in the near future.
Curtis Ofori is the youngest ever signing in Red Bulls II history, just beating out fellow Hudson Valley native Tyler Adams. I’m not sure what’s in the water up there but the springs of Dutchess County have produced another talented player. Ofori trained with NYRBII during last preseason and moved up to the U-19’s this season impressing each and every time. He has the athleticism required in modern fullbacks and the defensive tenacity to put out fires, with Red Bulls II manager John Wolyniec describing him as a “shut down” defender one-on-one. His game is smooth he glides up and down the field and can beat a player with the ball at his feet. He is still growing and will need time to physically mature but he will get chances to play this year and he more than capable of performing well.
The trialists provided a tough task tracking down information however what can be found point to a slightly different approach being taken. Emir Can Tonbul is a central defender from Switzerland who last played for the reserve side of Vitoria Guimaraes in Portugal, a club Red Bull Salzburg has had a loan relationship with in the past. The other center half on trial is Elijah Akin, a Texas native who has bounced around the lower divisions of Finland. Joining them are outside backs Allexon Saravia, a DC United academy graduate who spent last season with their USL affiliate Loudoun United, along with Jordan Bailon, a Red Bulls academy product who has experience with Red Bulls II and played collegiately at Dartmouth.
The midfield is the most experienced group, with Kyle Zajec returning from a significant knee injury for a third professional season. A healthy Zajec makes a big difference providing leadership and stability at the defensive midfield spot.
The trialists include old friend Adam Najem, a 26-year-old academy product from Wayne. Najem, whose brother David played with Red Bulls II for two seasons, had his homegrown rights traded away to Philadelphia in 2017 and has mostly bounced around the USL Championship ever since, where he was last seen with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and has racked up a career 9 goals and 13 assists in 74 appearances.
Seeing Najem’s name was quite surprising considering the get-younger ethos of the team, however signing him could be a wise move. As an experienced professional he can be a leader to group of mostly academy teens and college-agers. He also plays an attacking midfield position that doesn’t have a clear academy stand out that he may be blocking form advancing. While promoting youth is the goal, John Wolyniec believes the art of managing situations and winning games is a key element of the reserves’ development process and having a veteran head around could be crucial in establishing that culture. Joining him on trial is 19-year-old winger Teddy Ndje, formerly of Orlando City, whose odds of making the team are likely on the lower end.
Looking to make the jump from academy level is TJ Fatah, Balthazar Saunders, and Matthew Acosta. Fatah and Saunders joined from NYCFC when the Blues recently chose not to field a U-19 team. Fatah made a preseason appearance with NYCFC when he was a U-17 and is someone who could use this opportunity to earn a professional contract. Saunders is an attacking mid currently committed to Villanova with a very good left foot and panache on the ball. Acosta is a solid number 6 able to manage the tempo of the game who is currently committed to Rutgers.
Red Bulls first team signing Bento Estrela is not listed but is in camp with the USL squad, which makes sense as the 15-year-old is likely to spend the entire year with the reserves. Also not listed is recent USL signing Daniel Edelman who is one of the few non-MLS players still with the first team, as well as draft pick Lamine Conte who is in Florida as well.
Contract players Jake LaCava and Omar Sowe are also with the first team in Florida and reports out of camp about their play with the MLS side have been positive. They will be expected to lead the line in Montclair again and build off strong USL campaigns last year. First round SuperDraft pick Luther Archimede, who has professional experience in France with Sochaux, is also in first team camp although one would expect him to be with Red Bulls II at least to start the year.
The academy forwards receiving looks in preseason are Austin Brummett, Serge Ngoma, and Roald Mitchell. Brummett has already made USL appearances with Tacoma Defiance and joined the academy over the winter from the Seattle Sounders - the 16-year-old is one of the top striker prospects in his age group nationally. Ngoma is a year younger and made his Red Bulls II debut last year. A natural athlete, Ngoma is equally talented with the ball at his feet. One of the top strikers in the 2005 class his progression will be one to watch. Mitchell, who is committed to play collegiately at Wake Forest next year, is a lanky striker with the pace to get in behind defenses and the ability to finish in the air. A consistent scorer at the academy level, he may not make a huge impact this year but could be a player that benefits down the line from eventual time at Wake Forest, which has become a pro factory of late.
The only trialist listed is 6’5” striker Leon Maric, who last played collegiately at St Josephs. He had a strong 2018 with 12 goals however his 2019 season was less impressive. With his size, the possibility of converting him to center back exists. Meanwhile former United States youth national team forward Jeremy Rafanello is the only signed striker in camp, with the former Indy Eleven and Danish lower league player hoping to take this opportunity with Red Bulls II and earn an MLS contract.