On the surface, the New York Red Bulls offseason could portray the club to be in turmoil.
For the second straight season, the Red Bulls have traded their captain, a key figure in their midfield. The move, along with a slew of players waived and just a few signed from the Red Bulls reserve squad, New York Red Bulls II, projects frugality and contentment.
Viewed in a microcosm, the toiling seems little more than performance measured via off-field metrics rather than on-field glory, but with a wider lens, the Red Bulls philosophical shift looks like it is about to kick in to full gear.
“Our philosophy in terms of our style of play and knowing that… we play 34 games plus playoffs and Open Cup, it requires that you have young players that can sustain the demands of our style,” said Denis Hamlett during a team conference call Thursday morning.
Therein lies the short view.
At the surface level, being able to find players to fit the style requires a level of fitness that the Red Bulls technical staff deems higher than older players are capable of over the course of the long MLS season. From a practical standpoint, this explains many of the moves that the Red Bulls have made since the final whistle blew on their season on a cold wet field in Toronto.
Pulling focus out to a higher vantage, the long game becomes more visible. For a very long time, the Red Bulls have operated on the short game. High-priced veterans were brought in to deliver the ultimate prize but rarely have those teams been set for long term success on or off the field.
The first step in the process of reform has been underway. Entering its third season, the Red Bulls appear read to reap the fruits of those labors.
Talented young players on the squad are becoming part of the first team with regularity. Wunderkind Tyler Adams was a major success in his first starring role with the senior squad after winning a championship in the USL. Another part of that championship team was Aaron Long, USL Defender of the Year in 2016. Sean Davis, Derrick Etienne Jr., and Alex Muyl have also been making contributions both big and small. All three of them come directly from the Red Bulls academy system.
Joining their ranks in 2018, Vincent Bezecourt, Florian Valot, and Stefano Bonomo appear to be adding value and depth to the Red Bulls’ bench. Along with contributing, these players are becoming valuable assets.
While the Red Bulls have been able to make money selling some of its best young players in the past, the practice remained infrequent. That looks likely to change in the next few years with young players like Adams and Kemar Lawrence reportedly receiving interest from abroad.
The return on investment for academy players can still be tricky without earning minutes in MLS. Chris Gloster, a talented fullback who has seen time with the U.S. U-17 team turned down a Homegrown contract offer from the Red Bulls and is looking to explore other options. The Red Bulls will not receive compensation if he does indeed move on to a higher profile club. As MLS grows and changes, these risks should be alleviated, but for the time being, they represent a big challenge in the youth forward approach.
“When I first came here I challenged all the veteran players to understand that we were going to be about developing young players,” said Jesse Marsch back in November during the team’s end of year media day. “With the idea that eventually if you do that they’re probably going to take your job at some point.
“We have a philosophy, we have an identity and everybody’s truly committed to it.”
With the departure of Sacha Kljestan, the Red Bulls no longer look like a team half leaning into their philosophical approach. The team is getting younger and faster and is looking to invest in up-and-coming talent rather than players in or approaching the end of their prime.
The success of this model will be predicated on how much the young guns can be relied on to contribute to the team’s on field success. If last season is the start of a trend, the future is indeed bright for the Red Bulls.