Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports
By FRANCO PANIZO
HARRISON, N.J. – It was apparent from early on. Sporting Kansas City were targeting New York Red Bulls rookie right back Chris Duvall, thinking that his youth and inexperience were things they and U.S. national team midfielder Graham Zusi could exploit.
For much of the 90 minutes, Duvall proved them wrong.
Duvall continued his impressive but under-the-radar inaugural season as a pro this past Saturday, doing a solid defensive job on Zusi and co. as the Red Bulls picked up a much-needed 2-1 victory at home. The 22-year-old Duvall was tested early and often by Sporting KC, but he earned his paycheck with a strong shift that showed just why New York’s coaching staff has had the faith to start him in 14 consecutive matches dating back to May 24.
“The big reason we put him in, however long ago it’s been now, is I love the fact that whenever we have the ball he’s looking to play forward,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke of his 2014 second-round draft pick. “In a position where many outside backs in this league – including guys we’ve had before over the years – choose to play backwards first, he was always overlapping, he had a great attitude and he’s continued that.
“… He’s done all the little things and he has a hell of a lot farther to go. He’s by far not the best right back in the league. He can be it one day. He’s a young kid, he listens to what we say, he’s always looking to get forward, looking to do the dirty work, and if he corrects little tiny things here and there, he’s going to be a better player for it.”
Duvall’s attacking mindset might be what has really impressed Petke these last few months, but it was the Wake Forest product’s defensive work that really stood out on Saturday against Kansas City. Duvall admirably managed to keep the crafty and intelligent Zusi in front of him on the majority of their one-on-one battles, limiting the impact that the World Cup veteran had in the attacking third.
Zusi made the young defender pay in the 64th minute, however. The Sporting KC attacker created just enough separation from Duvall as Seth Sinovic hit a cross into the 18-yard box, and that allowed Zusi to head the ball to Dom Dwyer for the visitors’ lone goal.
It was a cruel lesson for Duvall, who had played so well up to that point, but a necessary one as well.
“Most of the problems that I still have can be solved with positioning and just thinking and not tuning out sometimes,” said Duvall. “There are times when the ball is on the opposite side of the field [and] it’s very easy to tune out, but smarter players on this level they take advantage. Amongst a lot of other things, positioning is something that’s been really big during this time.”
While up-and-down performances are part of the nature of fielding younger players, Duvall has been mostly steady since making his debut off the bench in the May 17 match vs. Toronto FC. That is why he has had a stranglehold on the right back spot ahead of veterans Kosuke Kimura and Richard Eckersley ever since, and why the Red Bulls continue to be high on him despite knowing that he is far from a finished product.
“For the most part, he’s been very good,” said midfielder Dax McCarty. “He’s a guy that’s just been thrown into the fire, he’s learning on the fly. He’s got to go through these experiences to become a better player. Positionally, he’s still learning. He’s a guy that was in college playing three months out of the year a year ago.
“He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s been very, very good for us. We need to keep him confident and make sure we’re supporting him.”