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Red Bulls II preview: youth movement trickles down

Academy standouts to play bigger role in senior reserve team that hopes to mold players at earlier stages of development

North Carolina FC v New York Red Bulls II
John Wolyniec takes charge of the Red Bulls reserves for his and the team’s seventh season in USL
Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

New York Red Bulls II missed the USL Championship playoffs for the first time in club history in 2020, a year that was more logistically challenging for the reserve team than ever before. The Montclair-based reserves received little reinforcement from the first team in the way of short-term loans due to COVID-19 bubble restrictions and additionally lost senior midfield anchor Kyle Zajec to an early season-ending injury.

This year’s squad will not only be better and more fluidly-built, but also feature some exciting new faces as the Red Bulls organization continues to get younger from top-to-bottom. The 2021 reserve team will likely feature at some point the two youngest players in the club’s history in 2006-born Bento Estrela and 2005-born Curtis Ofori. However, the goal is still getting the win for the team that won the 2016 USL senior title.

“We value winning because at the end of the day, on my priority list of producing players is producing winners,” said Red Bulls II manager John Wolyniec. “That’s way up there. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do everything to win at all costs and all that stuff we have room within that idea. We might see some younger players so maybe that does challenge us, in a sense and maybe we’re not you know first place in June and July but we are going to value that piece. Again, not so much because we need to win trophies, but because the idea of winning trophies is important, motivation for a player that’s trying to make the first team.”

We run down Wolyniec’s roster (or at least most-likely roster for what hopes to be a more fluid reserve operation this year) below:

Key Additions - new players likely to play key roles

Juan Castillo

The 18-year-old Colombian left back on loan from Milionarios comes in with a solid track record as a youth national team player and rising star. Described by local reporters as intelligent and fast he is a player the team really rated. He may not be ready for the start of the season as getting players to the US is tricky these days, but is someone who should be a contributor this year and a potential riser to MLS or beyond.

Daniel Edelman

Edelman could fit in the next section focusing on those coming up from the academy - however, with a full professional deal and a big role expected he moves into the key addition category. If anyone has listened to any media appearance Red Bulls veteran Sean Davis did during preseason, Daniel Edelman always came up. If the captain’s praise wasn’t enough, here is what John Wolyniec had to say about the technical midfielder.

“(Daniel) has been impressing with the first team so he’s been with them training, but he’s definitely a guy that’s on our roster that is going to be one of the focal points for the year a guy that we need to invest in and work with and provide an opportunity for him to keep making those next steps because he’s really been impressing - from the academy staff to the Red Bull II staff and the first team staff.”

North Carolina FC v New York Red Bulls II
Jake LaCava appeared close to an MLS opportunity early in the offseason and his window may still be open if he continues showing well at USL level
Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The big concern for Edelman is his slight frame and he will need to get stronger and continue to mature physically. However, he is a player that Red Bull fans will want to watch closely and get to know now because he could easily be with the first team a year from now.

Jeremy Rafanello

Rafanello has been on an interesting path in his young soccer career. Starting with the Philadelphia Union academy he played at Penn State before a stop in Denmark with FC Helsingor. He returned to America with Indy Eleven, where he scored once in eleven USL appearances.

Early reports out of camp is that he has been impressive and in the preseason friendly vs Hartford he showed qualities you like to see in a Red Bull Striker - good touch, athleticism, and positional understanding. Look for him to be a key player in what looks to be a potentially potent attack.

Up from the farm - academy kids set to make Red Bulls II debuts

Curtis Ofori

Though 15-year-old Curtis Ofori never received game time last season after a promotion to the RB2 squad, the young left back is a big talent and a player the club is super high on. Look for him to get minutes around the middle-to-later part of the season. John Wolyniec said its likely to be a two-year project for Ofori, who is younger than Tyler Adams when he was signed to senior reserve level.

Bento Estrela

Still only 14 when he signed an MLS contract with the Red Bulls earlier this year, Estrela is even younger than Ofori and a minor knock has set him back a bit in preseason. While on a first team deal he will spend the season with Red Bull 2. The 11 appearances and about 800 minutes Tyler Adams had his first season at this level seems like a good general target for Bento but at only 15 no need to rush the young homegrown.

Austin Brummett

The New Hampshire native was last with the Seattle Sounders academy before making the move to New York in the fall. A pure number 9 he is considered one of the top striker prospects in his age group. The forward position is pretty deep for Red Bull II but he is someone who the academy worked hard to get and should be in and around the team the entire year.

On the cusp - the players near an MLS call up

Omar Sowe

Sowe is entering his third season with Red Bulls II and it’s a big year for him. While he scored 7 goals last season, he will have to show more consistency game-to-game as last year he scored 6 of them came against the struggling Philadelphia Union 2. Having spent the offseason training with the U-19s and preseason with the first team he looked in fine form in a preseason tune-up vs Hartford, scoring a goal and showing a new aspect to his game with accurate long balls to switch the point of attack.

Jake LaCava

LaCava is another player that spent the offseason with the U-19s and preseason with the first team. He will be relied on heavily to provide goals and assists in his second season as a pro. He will be looking to prove to the staff that he has progressed beyond the USL level.

Big Question - can the defense improve?

Last year the team had major struggles along the backline, conceding 37 goals over 17 games, averaging 2.3 allowed per game and only managing one clean sheet. One of the big issues was the play of the CB’s who made many mistakes, and osing Kyle Zajec didn’t help by any means. The goalkeeping situation was also unstable however that appears rectified with professional prospect and Torino product Luca Lewis.

The defense and especially the CB position requires a lot of work. Lamine Conte, who played both as a CB and a CDM in college at Louisville, looks primed to start next to Mandela Egbo who is on loan from the first team. After that, the depth is unclear and it’s a position that the staff is still trying to figure out. Academy players Max Andrews and Tim Timchenko will likely be involved, however they are green. Joey Zalinksy has been playing at left back during the preseason, but he could be an option at CB and the right side of defense as well. If the Baby Bulls want to get back to being a playoff-contending team, the defense will have to be much better than it was last year.

Projected Starting XI