HARRISON, N.J. – The talented youngster that most observers were excitedly talking about ahead of Saturday's New York Red Bulls-Arsenal friendly was Gunners midfielder Gedion Zelalem.
But the talented youngster who finished the match with more acclaim played for the Red Bulls.
Ambroise Oyongo continued his string of impressive performances for the MLS club in RBNY's 1-0 home win over Arsenal, looking solid on both sides of the ball as he manned left midfield and left back for 45 minutes each, the lone Red Bulls player to go the distance in the friendly.
That Oyongo, 23, played the full 90 was not too surprising. With defender Roy Miller back in the fray after recovering from an injury picked up on World Cup duty, Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke finally had the opportunity to experiment, and luckily could do so in a match of no real importance.
The speedy and fearless Oyongo moved up from the left back spot he has started at since June 27, showing very well in the left midfield position in the first half before moving into the defense for the closing 45 minutes. He was equally as solid there, and afterwards drew immense praise from his head coach.
“Oyongo is a player that, within the next two years, big things can happen for him, globally,” said Red Bulls boss Mike Petke. “He’s a phenomenal young talent that seems to be improving on a weekend basis, so it was good to see him take an experiment – we put him on the left midfielder – and he did very well with it.
“If he continues to learn, continues to be willing to learn and keeps grounded, I think in the next two years he is going to be a big name,” Petke later added.
For Petke to make such bold declarations speaks volumes to the extreme confidence he currently has in his young player. After all, Petke tried his best to limit initial praise of right back Chris Duvall earlier this year in an attempt to prevent the rookie from becoming a target of the media hype machine, which often places unfair expectations on youngsters who are still learning their trade.
But Petke is far from the only one who has been impressed by the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Oyongo. Acquired on March 6, the Cameroonian – who made his national team debut last year – has shown an incredible work ethic off the field and plenty of skill on it.
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He continued to show just what he can bring to the Red Bulls, providing the type of speed and a willingness to take on defenders that have been largely absent from New York’s left midfielders this season, while also helping Miller negate Zelalem.
Oyongo is far from perfect, sometimes failing to track back with the necessary urgency or struggling in one-on-one defensive battles, but the building blocks are there for him to become a key contributor to this New York side for many years to come.
“He’s a great player,” said midfielder Tim Cahill. “We’ve been focusing a lot on him and having a complete performance, taking away the mistakes, and the more he takes out of his game the better he can become, even though he’s one of our shining players at the moment.
“I’m really happy for him because he’s a kid that wants to learn. When he very first come into preseason, he was the guy in the gym I could always see early in the morning. Sometimes you think, ‘Is it going to last?’ It’s lasted with him, he gets it and he’s working hard.”
Oyongo is doing that in training, and afterwards as well. A common scene at the Red Bulls' training facility is Oyongo sitting with fellow youngster Marius Obekop in a makeshift classroom, taking English lessons from a professor.
He is learning on the field as well, with Thierry Henry recently scowling at him in a league game against the San Jose Earthquakes for lingering upfield after an attack instead of scurrying back to the left back spot.
“When I came here, I came here to learn and then after that it was trying to get myself a position on the team,” said Oyongo through a translator. “I’m playing with full confidence, I guess I’ve earned a spot and now it’s, make sure that I continue to contribute and listen to everything that Petke says, just focusing on my personal objectives on the field and the team’s objectives.”
Oyongo will likely return to the left back spot in Wednesday’s road game against Real Salt Lake (9 pm ET, ESPN2) if Miller is not yet ready to play 90 minutes. But when the Costa Rican is fully able to contribute, it seems that Petke will deploy Oyongo at left midfield while inserting Miller at left back, as was the case in the first half vs. Arsenal.
“With Ambroise, he will give you what he has, whatever the position that he’s playing,” said Henry on Saturday. “Ambroise, I guess, gave some problems to the boss to think about because he played well today.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.