The 2021 MLS regular season has long been over and the unforgiving nature of single-elimination playoffs has sent more and more clubs officially to the offseason, joining 13 clubs that missed the playoffs.
Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With most clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
The New York Red Bulls' 2021 season was quite the roller coaster.
They started strong, but then faded a bit as spring turned to summer. Then as summer became the dog days of summer they absolutely crashed, falling well below the playoff radar. But they didn’t fold, fought back and made an impressive climb through Decision Day to keep their now-12-year playoff streak alive.
It wasn’t quite perfect, but not half bad for what was a transitional year under new manager Gerhard Struber and a ton of new starters. Plus, a ruptured Achilles limited former Defender of the Year Aaron Long, one of the club’s few key holdovers and veterans, to just five starts.
RBNY are in a good spot heading into the offseason, but have a number of pressing questions to deal with before 2022.
First and foremost: Captain Sean Davis is out of contract. The club and player are in negotiations, but nothing has been sorted yet.
Davis, who turns 29 ahead of next season, played every single minute for the Red Bulls in 2021. He’s been a regular starter for five years, in the first team for seven years and with the club in some capacity for more than a decade. He's integral to the locker room and one of the few veterans guiding a young squad.
The midfielder made around $400,000 last year, per MLSPA. A raise could take him close to or above the TAM range ($612,500 in 2021).
If you run an expansion or struggling club seeking a hard reset for a new era, could you think of many better, realistically available players to start a cultural shift with than Davis? Dax McCarty (RBNY, Chicago, Nashville) and Walker Zimmerman (LAFC, Nashville) were traded multiple times for this very reason; Alex Ring (Austin FC) was not cheap, either.
If Davis is available for free rather than a boatload of allocation money, he will not face a shortage of suitors.
Head of sport Kevin Thelwell spoke of doing less than the club did last winter, where about a dozen players came and went.
“Last year it was clear we were in a roster rebuild,” Thelwell said after their season ended. “I don’t think we’re in a roster rebuild now, but I do see room for improvement. We want to support the current group of players we got – it has potential. We want to give Gerhard and the group the best possible chance to succeed.”
And that is true. They’re not in a rebuild this year, there are plenty of strengths and core pieces in place. Perhaps they don’t quite bring in another dozen, but they do have a number of key players to add. So it’s looking like another transformational window.
Exiting the club this month are three starters (Kyle Duncan, Fabio, Andrew Gutman); one wonderkid who had mostly been a starter before his injury (Caden Clark); and one regular from the last half-decade, a key locker room veteran (Daniel Royer).
Duncan’s contract expired and he signed in Belgium, while loans for Fabio and Andrew Gutman expired. The Red Bulls opted against picking up Fabio’s purchase option despite a promising season. One would imagine the number wasn’t palatable from Oeste FC. Gutman will head to Atlanta United after his loan expires. Clark goes to Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, though there were talks of him possibly returning to RBNY on loan at some point.
That’s a lot of minutes and influences!
We just talked about Davis, his future isn’t 100% locked down yet. RBNY are in negotiations with Stoke City and Tom Edwards about keeping the defender in New York as well, but that also isn’t locked down just yet.
RBNY will have to replace at least three starters, one wonderkid and one regular from the last half-decade. There is a realistic scenario where the club captain and ever-present midfielder (Davis) and versatile starting defender (Edwards) are added to that list. That’s not easy.
As previously noted, there is a strong core in place for the Red Bulls to build around.
Long hopes to be back in full training to start preseason. Starting goalkeeper Carlos Coronel’s purchase option was triggered, he’s here for the long-term. Cristian Casseres Jr. is a building block (until a European club comes calling), and they invested a good amount into Patryk Klimala. Andres Reyes, Sean Nealis and John Tolkin took big steps last year. Wiki Carmona surpassed all reasonable expectations.
RBNY have some needs, but they have some roster/cap resources. They filled all three U22 Initiative slots, but have two open DP spots. They can fill both with senior DPs if they so choose because Klimala is a Young DP
If RB global pushes more chips to New York, that could really unlock a new level for RBNY.
“We’re going to maximize all of our resources, and I’ve very comfortable with the resources that we’ve got,” Thelwell said. “So, watch this space, I suppose."
- Going to write this out with Sean Davis and Tom Edwards included. The question marks mean negotiations. Again, neither is definitely returning. (Same for center back Issiar Drame)
- Bonus fourth question: Will they primarily play out of a 4-4-2 diamond or three at the back? If it's three at the back, will it be with one or two forwards? They ended in a 3-4-2-1, so let's start with that. But don't be shocked if preseason sees a return to a 4-4-2 diamond, pending offseason signings.
- I'd imagine a number of academy/RBNY II guys will get first-team deals this winter. HG signing Bento Estrela is left off the depth chart because he's 15 years old. USYNT midfielder Daniel Edelman is one to keep an eye on.