It is okay to say things are bad, or have not met expectations. Those are two ways to describe the 2018-2019 Development Academy season for the New York Red Bulls U-15s through U-19s. Another way to describe it: turbulent and inconsistent.
In November 2018, the Red Bulls parted ways with Academy Director David Longwell, a position not yet filled. Halfway through the year, they let a few coaches go including former MetroStar JJ Zaun.
While acting academy director Denis Hamlet has been adjusting things internally, the results on the field have been inconsistent. Of the two teams, U-19 and U-17, who have expanded playoffs only the U-19’s made it which is not good enough. The U-15’s have a much tougher road with only 1 wildcard for the entire nation so missing out is less egregious.
The Red Bulls U-19s were the only Red Bulls team to qualify for playoffs this year. That, however, does not tell the entire story. This team season can be easily summed up by looking at the Playoffs results. They started strong with a 3-0 win over the Revolution, then followed up with a 4-1 loss to Real Colorado. They finished group play with a 2-0 win over St Louis FC, but failed to advance due to goal difference. The regular season saw inconsistent results and an overall record of 11-4-7.
The core group heads off to college soccer. In an age where more Americans turn pro at younger ages, this may not seem like a positive. The Red Bulls, however, prove that college soccer still provides value.
Many Red Bull players moving on are not pro-ready, however, the potential is there. Defenders Ryan Schultz (Michigan), Christopher Tiao (Rutgers), Dylan Sullivan (Clemson), and Jared Juleau (St. Johns) all show potential. The Red Bull’s ability to get the best out of 4-year college players cannot be ignored. If they hit on any one of these guys it would be a success.
Another positive from the season is the emergence of Omar Sowe. The Harrison native arrived at the academy in November 2018, boasting an impressive high school scoring record. He quickly showed that it was not a fluke.
Sowe scored 9 goals in 15 games, and 10 starts. In addition, he scored in a thrilling U.S. Open Cup win over FC Motown. He followed that with a solid shift against Memphis 801 in the next round. The future is unclear at the moment. Sowe has not committed, and is unlikely to commit, to college soccer. For Red Bulls homegrown contract eligibility, he would have to spend another half season in the academy.
There is another option.
Omar Sowe is good enough right now to contribute in USL. With the U-19s, he proved he can score and defenders struggled to match his combination of skill, strength, and athleticism. What was most impressive was his intelligence. His movement off the ball and understanding of the game was excellent. He almost always made the right play, even if that was the simple one. This is a trait that will transition well to higher levels.
The U-19’s were a young team this past year. Throughout the season, they played a number of U-17 roster players and players set to graduate next year. The key contributors among that group include Sal Esposito, Conner Maurer, and John Tolkin. Maurer and Esposito made appearances for NYRBII. Tolkin appeared at US U-17 qualifiers and appears on the NYRBII roster.
Like Tolkin and Maurer, Bryce Lebel, Diogo Rebelo, Amir Daly, and Alex Bobocea, all played up an age group. Joseph Zalinksy played up two age groups. These players, mostly defenders, make up the core of the U-19’s next year. It’s likely that the highly rated Dontouma “Yaya” Toure will play with the U-19’s next year as well.
The Red Bulls also added NJ high school standouts, Emiland Elezaj and Jack Borden, to the U-19 and U-17 rosters. Both additions were likely with next season in mind based off the timing. Expect more players added to reinforce weaker positions, but the team has a solid base. With its backline of talented and experienced players, next season looks brighter.
Disappointing is the word that best describes the U-17 season. They missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins, 0.01 points per game. Qualifying for the playoffs is a baseline expectation with this group, and an overall record of 10-7-5 is not good enough. However, the season was not all bad. They qualified for the top division of the Generations Adidas Cup.
There, they earned draws against Club America and Penarol, but lost to FC Dallas and West Ham 1-0. It is also important to note that the team did battle injuries. Additionally, they lost a key player in Peter Stroud at the beginning of the season.
The major positive from this season is that many of the top players on this team were born in 2003. This age group ranges between 2002 and 2003. Having some of your top players be on the younger side bodes well for next season and the future.
One of those players was striker Roald Mitchell. Mitchell scored 14 goals in 25 games, 20 starts, and has the ability to score more next year. Mitchell has good size for his age, and uses his pace well to get in behind the defense. He will need to improve with his back to goal, but the talent and production are there. He can build on this past season.
The returning 2003’s coupled with the rising 2004’s have the potential to come together and be a very good team. While additions need to be made, the spine of the team is strong. In the back, I expect to see Joseph Zalinsky paired with Max Andrews.
US U-15 international, JC Cortez, will play CB as well as splitting time with Justin Aguirre at left back. In the midfield, Tapwia Shumba will pair really well with Kenan Hot, freeing Hot to do more work creating and controlling the tempo of the game. Hot is another US U-15 international who will flourish playing with Shumba, a hard-nosed ball winning CM that covers space and moves the ball quickly.
Up top, Mitchell will be supported by Edwin Melendez and Thomas Tulgar. Tulgar is a strong prospect. Last season, he scored 28 goals at the U-15 level, and won the Golden Boot at Salzburg’s annual Next Generation Trophy tournament. Unfortunately, an injury kept him out most of the fall into the spring. However, he ended the season in good form, scoring goals against the Colorado Rapids and Sacramento Republic during the showcase.
The U-15’s finished with a record of 15-5-2. They played a tough schedule including multiple games against the undefeated Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union academies. They also were able to qualify for the first U-15 challenge which pitted MLS teams vs Liga MX teams. The Red Bulls Split two games with Cruz Azul, beat Monterey, and lost to Leon. Unlike GA cup that has a lower level, only 4 MLS academies qualified for this event.
During the U-15 Summer showcase, the team had 7 players born in 2005. Those players make up the core of the squad moving forward. Many of those players earned U-14 identification camp call-ups. One thing to watch for next season: if Serge Ngoma, who played up a year this season, continues with the U-15s or moves up to the U-17s. Ngoma scored 12 goals last season. Do not be surprised to see him split time between the two teams.
What’s Next for the Academy
Heading into next season, the Red Bull Academy will be run a bit differently. While they are not adopting a full residency program, they are doing a school day program. This means top players will be pulled out of school once a week, splitting time between training and the classroom. This makes it even easier for Academy players to be integrated into first and second team training sessions.
The Red Bulls recently announced that they are looking for host families for academy players. This is a major step and clear indicator the Red Bulls are expecting, and ready, for Homegrown territories to be removed.