The New York Red Bulls reserve team gave 30 soccer players professional experience this year. Fourteen on Red Bulls II's roster were under the age of 20 and able to gain an introduction to the rigors of United Soccer League (USL) Championship soccer and the Red Bulls style of play.
Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.
- NCAA Champion head coach, John Wooden
In 2021, the New York Red Bulls II did not earn the results they were looking for. It was Head Coach John Wolyniec's seventh season in charge and the team missed the USL Championship playoffs for just the second time.
While the team finished seventh in the Atlantic Division in a season where the team suffered a seven-game losing streak, the team did succeed in developing a large host of young players.
In total, 30 players experienced Red Bulls II football in 2021, and out of them 16 were from the Academy, 14 were under 20 and seven were under 18. Once a metro's Eric Friedlander reported in September that the reason the Red Bulls II had a younger roster was that the Red Bulls stopped fielding their U-19 Academy team this season because the club reportedly "didn't see the value" in continuing with it, while the USL team was serving as their proving ground.
Omar Sowe made a lot of progress this season. He led the team in goals for the second straight year and has scored 15 goals at the USL level. In September, Sowe made his first team debut at Red Bull Arena and then became one of two Red Bulls II players to sign their first MLS contracts.
Sowe and Marcucci were two players who made a big step forward by signing with the New York Red Bulls, but how did they become first team players? The answer is in the pipeline from the academy all the way up to the second and first teams. Red Bulls II manager, John Wolyniec was generous in his insights into the process that Academy players go through in one of Major League Soccer's biggest markets.
This season, 30 players donned those ruby red home jerseys. Sixteen were former Red Bulls academy players, Six were under 18 years old, and 15 were under 20. The Red Bulls II were the youngest team in the USL Championship.
Academy products Daniel Edelman, Serge Ngoma, and Austin Brummett made the biggest strides on the Red Bulls II this year. The team also signed Curtis Ofori who was their youngest ever player, and he played in 15 games. Coach Wolyniec has dealt with academy players for seven seasons now and was able to discuss what introducing Red Bulls Academy players to the professional game is all about.
It’s about educating them on the physicality of the game, all the general differences between an academy game and a USL championship game. Some of that is easily communicated, some of it isn’t. It takes time. There’s a reason why experienced pros are effective players, it takes time.
It will always take time for young players to learn what it takes to be a professional athlete on a regular basis. What is unique about the Red Bulls academy is that they introduce youth soccer players to their agressive style of play called the "high-press". Basically, players have to be able to pressure their opponents whenever they have the ball.
The first thing is the energy and ability to concentrate. We were just having a discussion with the staff with coming up with a new term, ‘always doing something.’ One of the messages I’ve had is at the levels most of the players have been at, there’s some freedom for them to take a break physically or mentally [where] you won’t get punished and at our level, there needs to be an urgency in how you think and act, because in MLS, it’s going to be even faster. The way we play is aggressive, its up the field, and if you have lapses you get punished hard.
- Red Bulls II manager, John Wolyniec
An 18-year-old player who made the most of the opportunities this year was Daniel Edelman. The native of Warren, New Jersey was second on the Red Bulls II in minutes played behind 21-year-old center back Emir Tombul. He was named captain on a team with several veteran players including Tombul and Mandela Egbo.
Edelman's progress this year was both unexpected and accelerated, and Coach Wolyniec described what his captain showed him in 30 appearances for the second team.
He proved over and over that he's the engine of the team. We’ve given him some things and he’s accomplished those things, so now we're giving him more things and he's handled them as well. He seems to take those things on pretty well, which speaks highly of him going forward.
To cap off a terrific season for Determined Dan, the New Jersey-native scored his first goal of the season in the Baby Bulls final match. The effort he put in obviously got him recognized because, according to Ben Cork's article titled "Kevin Thelwell tells us why he's Constantly Thinking about the Future," the Red Bulls sporting director mentioned that Edelman "had been training with the first team "on a regular basis.
In November, Edelman and outstanding first team midfielder Caden Clark were called in to U.S. Men's National Team camp for the inaugural Revelations Cup. Edelman would have a chance to prove to USMNT U-20 coaching staff that he should be selected to face U-20 teams from great soccer nations of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.
Younger Players who Made an Impact
While Edelman had some experience with the Red Bulls II coming into 2021, there were also several players who stepped up from the academy with no prior experience. The seven very young academy players who the club deemed fit for the second team in 2021 were Curtis Ofori, Serge Ngoma, Austin Brummett, Sam Williams, Nicolas Rabiu, J.C. Cortez and Matt Acosta.
All of them earned their first professional minutes, but the only two who scored were the youngest of the group.
The New Jersey-native started in 18 matches contributing 3 goals. His manager described why his young offensive-minded player is a player that the organization values highly.
Serge is a high-level talent guy, especially on the physical end with his pace. You saw with a couple of his goals; he starts it with his press and he’s able to create attacking opportunities with that. That’s why we like Serge so much. He needs some work on the tactical side, and maybe the awareness side.
Austin Brummett was one of four players under 17 that Coach Wolyniec gave a shot to make an impression as they work their way up from the academy. Brummett was in the Seattle Sounders academy before transferring to the Red Bulls academy this year.
The stocky playmaker scored one goal and one assist in 24 appearances and was one of three players under the age of 18 who registered a point. Coach Wolyniec assessed what Brummett brought to the table in 2021.
He proved that the mind can be an incredible benefit. He’s a really intelligent player [who] understands where the play is going and understands where he needs to be when things moves fast. As much as he doesn’t have the pace of a Serge, he’s intelligent with the way he moves, he sees things early and can also use his body in good ways.
It's interesting that Wolyniec was able to work with two players who are getting a head start on their way to the pro ranks. Coach Wolly points out that Ngoma and Brummett were two of his youngest players this season and although they are different from one another, each have mental and physical attributes that can benefit the club going forward.
Older Players Eyeing the Next Step
During a highly competitive season internally and a one where the team struggled, midfielders Jake LaCava and Jeremy Rafanello were in the top three for goals and assists. Neither has trained with the first team, while Omar Sowe, AJ Marcucci, and Daniel Edelman have, and they are deserving. Showing that you provide a team with playmaking and goal scoring at the same time should warrant at least some practice with the next level to give that young player an idea of what they need to do next.
Coach Wolyniec says the Red Bulls II's top playmakers are close to playing first team soccer, but like Edelman will need a little bit more seasoning.
It's a combination of kind of what I hinted at with Edelman [which is] just because you’re successful in USL doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in MLS. It certainly hints at that, so an ability to show they can translate their skills and their abilities and what they’ve done on the USL level with MLS-level players, so whether that’s training or preseason, that’s obviously what would come first next year, with them being able to show that.
While there were many fresh faces like Sam Williams, John Cortez and others, there were players who joined Red Bulls II with professional miles under their belt. One in particular was Jeremy Rafanello, the magnetic midfielder was second in goal scoring and assists for John Wolyniec’s side in 2021, and his coach described what kind of experience he needed.
He doesn’t need the eye opening experience, he needs help and to be shown how to do certain things and there’s certain things I can help him with. The big piece there is teaching him our style, Fortunately for us, he had some experience with the Philadelphia Union academy, whose style is similar, but not exactly the same as ours, so that was a benefit as well.
The 21-year-old who is from Delran, New Jersey, hometown of Carli Lloyd, discussed what he proved to himself and the league by becoming a consistent starter.
I got more playing time in the sense that I was kind of looking for, and I wanted to prove to people in the league and with the Red Bulls that I earned the right to play. I feel like I did that and especially coming off of my first year not playing a lot of games and only being able to be subbed in... [that] is what you have to do and take stepping stones in your career and learn from that.
Rafanello and LaCava were part of just five Baby Bulls this season over the age of 20, which shows that the club is prioritizing youth at the second team-level. Rafanello and LaCava took their opportunity to play in the USL this season, performing well, but may need more seasoning in training camp next season before they pop up on Gerhard Struber's radar as attacking options.
Debuts of International Signings Delayed
We've discussed just about all the notable players who came through the second team this season, but left out the four international players; Luther Archimede, Issiar Drame, Steven Sserwadda and Lamine Conte.
Let us begin with the 13th overall pick in the 2021 MLS Draft, Luther Archimede. The 6'2" Guadeloupe-native hit a snag with his VISA approval and could not join the Red Bulls II until early September. Archimede was selected high in the draft and called to the Guadelope National team in July for a CONCACAF Gold Cup match on July 15.
The man with the 6'2" frame that he uses to shield the ball from defenders managed to score three goals in ten games, but it's reasonable to wonder if he could have accomplished more with more time. All in all, Archimede's VISA issue was not exclusive to him.
Midfielder Steven Sserwadda was delayed by VISA issues from joining the team from his home nation of Uganda. The 19-year-old attacking player played four games this year, but was able to make it onto the bench of the USL Team of the Week for finishing the USLC season with a strong 90-minute performance in the team's 4-1 finale win over Loudoun United.
Last but not least Issiar Drame was added to the Red Bulls II on Sept. 29 and over three matches accumulated 151 minutes and a "carte à jaune" which is French for yellow card. Lastly, the Red Bulls selected Lamine Conte, a center back from the University of Louisville and who played with Reading United of the USL League 2 from 2017-19. The Baby Bulls hoped he would have been able to contribute in 2021, but Conte was not able to join the team for unspecified reasons that likely relate to VISA approval issues.
Overall, it was not an ideal season, but what season is. The amount of experience the Red Bulls II players were able to gain was greater than the shortened 2020 season. Add to that, that Sowe and Marcucci signed their first MLS contracts and Edelman was called into the United States National Team's U-20 team for an international tournament and it is clear that the positives that did occur for the Red Bulls II in 2021 were very special.
Anthony graduated from Montclair State University, where he covered a variety of sports for three years. He co-hosts a sports-themed radio show on campus radio station, WMSC 90.3 FM, which was recently named #1 college radio station in the nation.