How Red Bulls' academy changed the franchise, and why the rest of MLS should follow
By the time kickoff arrived, there were not many in the stands. Noise washed across the field from the supporter’s end of the palatial Red Bull Arena, but their numbers were small. Second division soccer rarely produces standing-room-only crowds, no matter the corner of the globe.
The kernels of revolution are often fomented this kind of anonymity, and if that becomes the case here, you can point to that cool night on Oct. 23, 2016 as the moment the Red Bulls’ youth movement became a concern of national repercussion.
In 2016, Red Bulls II, the USL arm of the parent MLS club, was unlike any club in the USL’s relatively short history. The team set the league record for points in a season and, on that October night in Harrison, New Jersey, became the first MLS-owned USL team to win the title. The game was a shockingly one-sided affair, Red Bulls II running roughshod over Swope Park Rangers, Sporting Kansas City’s USL affiliate, to the tune of 5-1.
With a Homegrown backbone of Brandon Allen, Derrick Etienne, Dan Metzger and Tyler Adams, Red Bulls II coasted to the title. Allen scored a hat trick. Etienne added one more. And Adams, the highly regarded defensive midfielder who turns 18 this month, led everyone in passing with a 43-for-55 day that settled and controlled the game.
THE FIRST LEVEL: CREATION
The most shocking MLS transaction this offseason involved longtime Red Bulls midfield heartbeat Dax McCarty. Perhaps the most consistent defensive midfielder in the league, McCarty was shipped to Chicago on Jan. 16 in exchange for $400,000 in allocation money. It was an impressively hefty sum that can be funneled directly back into a new player acquisition, but in the interim, it revealed a surprisingly firm vote of confidence in the Red Bulls’ ability to backfill the spot with its own depth.
[The trade] was made because guys, specifically Sean Davis and Tyler Adams, we know are ready for bigger challenges. In order to really honor their development and progress, we needed to make a move
It was not so long ago that the New York Red Bulls’ history with its Homegrown players more closely resembled a boneyard than a well-tilled garden. My, how things have changed.
"ins>[The trade] was an incredibly difficult decision, but it was made because guys, specifically Sean Davis and Tyler Adams, we know are ready for bigger challenges,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch told FourFourTwo. “In order to really honor their development and progress, we needed to make a move that made the new challenges for them bigger and better and stronger and kept them moving forward in a way that keeps them hungry and eager and ready to prove themselves.”
In truth, the Red Bulls were one of the early adopters of a Homegrown pipeline the rest of the league was reticent to trust when it made its debut in 2009. Since the Development Academy was formed from dust in 2007, the Red Bulls have had one of the league’s most robustly successful academies, but as is so often the case on this side of the Atlantic, first team integration was a harder thing than it perhaps seemed.
Between 2009-2014, the Red Bulls signed six Homegrowns, of which only two played anything approaching minutes of note. Both were defenders: Connor Lade (2011) and Matt Miazga (2013). Lade’s been in and out of the starting lineup since making his debut in 2012, but Miazga is one of the great success stories of the Homegrown rule, securing a $6 million transfer to Chelsea in 2016. Even then, it took Miazga two years of unsuccessfully banging on the first team door before finally earning his shot in 2015.
THE NEXT LEVEL: DEPENDENCE
It was not until 2016 that the club really got a taste of what its prodigious Homegrown pipeline could provide higher up the field. And at least in terms of replacing McCarty, the omens for 2017 were good. Yes, even without McCarty.
For one, Sean Davis’ emergence in 2016 likely means the club can scoot Felipe, McCarty’s midfield partner, back a bit, letting the former Duke star provide the connective tissue between the defensive midfield and attacking midifelder Sacha Kljestan. Even with the central midfield logjam in 2016, Marsch trusted the Homegrown midfielder enough to lob him 1,108 minutes and 11 starts. That number should double, at least, in 2017. Davis is certainly good enough to earn the job.
Perhaps, though, the most intriguing name in the reckoning is Adams’. By the time the 2017 season starts, the holding midfielder will be 18, the same age as a certain holding midfielder who broke into the then-Metrostars lineup in 2005 and set the league on fire. His name? Michael Bradley.
Managers are often reticent to go with youth in the defensive midfield due to the stringent physical demands of such a high-pressure job, especially in a brusque league like MLS. But Adams is perhaps the craftiest defensive midfielder in the entire U.S. youth national team pool, a main reason why he’ll almost certainly be the U.S.’ primary No. 6 at the 2017 U-20 World Cup (provided the team qualifies in February).
It’s unlikely Adams will be a day-one starter for the Red Bulls in 2017, but the fact remains: No team in MLS has a more enticing teenage defensive midfielder in the pipeline. It would not be at all out of place to see Adams starting games in 2017. One hopes he gets a chance, at least.
And lest we forget about Metzger, a University of Maryland product who was also a part of that smashing 2016 USL title team’s Homegrown foursome. He signed a contract with the first team on Jan. 23. Whether or not the Red Bulls have an international splash lined up in the central midfield, it certainly looks as though they’re rolling with local young players for now. And that’s an encouraging sign.
Of course, the Homegrown hits don’t stop there. The 21-year-old Alex Muyl broke out as a wide threat in 2016, clocking more than 1,500 minutes with two goals and six assists. And Etienne, who prefers to create havoc on the other flank off the left, was perhaps the single most electric winger in the USL in 2016. Aside from a four-minute cameo late last year, he’s yet to get a chance with the first team after signing a Homegrown deal in late 2015. He remains an enticing bench option.
THE END PRODUCT: EVOLUTION
In that sense, it’s perhaps a bit unrealistic to expect the Red Bulls to be as precise, dogged and experienced at the base of the spine this season. That’s the nature of turnover and leaning on youth, after all. Some speed bumps in the early going in 2017 are likely, and on more than one occasion, Red Bulls fans will perhaps have reason to miss McCarty. But a Felipe-Davis connection in the midfield with Adams providing depth isn’t likely to detract from an attack that still features luminaries like Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The Red Bulls may not be the same in 2017 as they were in 2016, but they’ll be just fine. The playoffs are still calling.
The McCarty deal was hardly the most popular personnel maneuver in Red Bulls history once the news hit. The captain was a beloved folk hero in Harrison, and at least in terms of immediate production there’s no like-for-like replacement. Whether or not McCarty is on the downslope of his career (he turns 30 in April), he’s still easily a top three holding midfielder in MLS.
But that’s just the point. In the past, the majority of MLS teams have been reticent to throw youth into that refining fire for fear of the talent drop-off without accounting for the inevitable improvement that comes with playing young players early and often. The Red Bulls, it seems, are on the way to bridging that divide under Marsch. It’s a lesson the rest of the league would do well to heed.