HARRISON, N.J. — A curious development has taken place in recent weeks for the New York Red Bulls: A rookie signed just this month has become the starter at right back over an established veteran with international experience who was arguably the best right back in MLS in 2018.
So why make the change?
The Red Bulls have had three games thus far in August and gone with a largely unknown commodity in Rece Buckmaster at right back over usual starter Michael Murillo in each of those matches. The 23-year-old Buckmaster, who signed a first-team deal with the club on Aug. 3, has started against Toronto FC, LAFC, and, most recently, the New England Revolution.
Now it is not rare for the Red Bulls to give a youngster starts. Such is their philosophy. Doing so consistently over the course of a few weeks while jockeying for playoff positioning is a different case, though, especially when Murillo is fully fit and healthy.
“Well, they are both great players,” said Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Revolution. “Look at Murillo when he came in. He did a nice job. We see that Murillo is an attacking right back and he’s a defensive right back, too, and he can attack and you can see that his injection on the field at that moment, it actually helped us gain some attack.
“Right now Rece Buckmaster is the guy that’s — firstly, we had 22 shots to 6. Again, that’s a big plus with him on the field. We’ve got some big results with him on the field and we see him, Rece Buckmaster, as a lockdown outside back. You just can’t get by him, so why would I not play Rece? That’s the question: Why wouldn’t you play Rece all the time? I think that’s what it should be.”
It might be tough to take Armas’ assessment about Buckmaster seriously given what has transpired over the last two games. The rookie right back not only gave up the decisive penalty kick in the Red Bulls’ 4-2 road loss to LAFC on Aug. 11 via a clumsy challenge, but was also partially to blame on the Revolution’s equalizer this past weekend.
On the play in the Eastern Conference stalemate, Buckmaster failed to get goal-side of his mark, Gustavo Bou, on a counterattack and that allowed for an easy run into open space for the golden scoring opportunity. Buckmaster was not the only person at fault for the goal — Aaron Long was also not even with the back line, for instance — but Buckmaster’s involvement showed he still has a lot of work to do.
“It hasn’t been terrible but it for sure can be better,” Buckmaster told SBI when asked to give an assessment of his play thus far. “There’s going to be learning curves and everything, but you’ve just got to keep on pushing through those learning curves and getting over them.”
So why exactly then is Armas playing Buckmaster as the first-choice option over Murillo, a Panamanian international with World Cup experience and a starting member of the Red Bulls’ back line that gave up a league-low 33 goals in 2018?
A plausible explanation could be due to a feeling from Armas and the coaching staff that Murillo is not as engaged or committed as he was a year ago. The 23-year-old defender has had multiple lapses in concentration this season on his assignments and been at fault for a few goals and breakdowns.
Murillo being distracted or not fully bought in is certainly a possibility. European clubs have been rumored to be after him since the World Cup last year, and Murillo stated publicly in July 2018 that he wanted to make the move abroad after surprisingly being benched in favor of Connor Lade for a game against rivals New York City FC. Murillo’s agent event went to New York at that time to try and hammer out a deal.
If that is the explanation and Murillo is not as focused, Armas and the Red Bulls are in a tough spot. Murillo may be more talented and experienced than Buckmaster and other right backs the club has on its roster, but talent alone does not always overcome a lack of commitment.
That said, Armas needs to try and find a way to get the most of Murillo for this stretch run into the postseason. Murillo is not only a capable defender when engaged, but he’s also an outlet in possession and an attacking threat in the final third with his overlapping runs and crosses.
If Armas cannot do that, the Red Bulls might have to settle on continuing to play Buckmaster and living through growing pains like the ones we have seen in recent weeks.
“That’s my goal for the team: just to lock down that spot and just keep on getting points and moving on to the playoffs and winning MLS Cup,” said Buckmaster.” I’m just going to do everything I can and in my power to just keep on improving and lock down that spot.”