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What Does the Red Bulls Backline Look Like Without Aaron Long

photo by Matt Kremkau

Written by Daniel Feuerstein

As we begin a brand new Red Bulls season in Harrison, the team in red is looking to improve their roster with some signings that are needed to bolster their attack and we know about the rumors of the club trying to sign a young Belgian striker that looks to be tearing up their first division. But while that is going on, the questions are now looking toward the backline and a big omission just recently happened.

After spending seven seasons with the Red Bulls, Center back Aaron Long has moved on as a free agent and signed with the defending MS Cup Champions Los Angeles FC and has returned home to the West Coast and will be a part of a solid backline. He scored a combined 12 goals in over 11,000 minutes played to be that solid defender in the middle of the park to help his keeper prevent the goals into the net.

But with Long now playing for another side, that doesn't mean this Red Bulls backline has been weakened. There is a strong chance for that unit to be stronger and better in this 2023 season. John Tolkin has been a revelation as a fullback on the left side, while Kyle Duncan looks to return to the club along the right side from his Belgium stint at K.V, Oostende.

But the Center back department to me seems to be very strong. Ever since Aaron Long suffered his Achilles tendon rupture in 2021, Sean Nealis has quickly grown up to be a strong leader of the backline and has shown some offensive skills to convert chances during set pieces. Many have felt that Sean would be a perfect choice to wear the Captain's armband now that Long has moved on. 

Andres Reyes has shown the ability to be that solid Center back to prevent goals but at the same time, he has the chance to convert as well. But every once in a while, he shows some immaturity in his defending where his decision-making can lead toward a card-able offense. In a road match in 2021 against the New England Revolution, the good was scoring the opening goal, but the bad was two terrible fouls that were booked as yellow cards, then red to send him off after the first 30 to 35 minutes of that match.

Hassan Ndam returned last season to the club and restarted his Red Bulls career with the two team in USL Championship, but came back to the top side in a friendly against FC Barcelona, then remained with the MLS side till the end of the season last year. Before he was selected in the FC Cincinnati expansion draft, Ndam showed why he was going to be the future of the Red Bulls when he played a strong US Open Cup four-goal victory against NYCFC in the fourth round in 2018.

Since bouncing around on loan from Cincinnati, his talents were being wasted, but once he returned to the Red Bulls, Ndam showed that quality again and he is the reason why I believe he should be paired with Sean Nealis at the Center back position. While Sean's brother Dylan is normally a Center back by trade, he can easily jump to fullback whenever he is needed, so I consider him a jack-of-all-trades type of defender.

But at the end of the day, I consider the backline to be strong and still improved to be a wall defending well for the Red Bulls while choosing their moment to convert an occasional goal here or there. The only weakness I can see is that they will miss Long's aerial attack during set pieces, but that's one issue they won't have to worry about because defending is what the backline is supposed to do.


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