New York Red Bulls well prepared for life without defender Matt Miazga
Many months before the New York Red Bulls sold Matt Miazga to English Premier League champ Chelsea, Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis and head coach Jesse Marsch began the process of finding the 20-year-old center back's replacement.
While Curtis and Marsch held out hope entering this offseason that they'd find a way to retain their prized homegrown defender, they also understood that their chances of resigning Miazga -- who was eager to test himself in Europe and had less than 12 months remaining on his Major League Soccer contract -- were slim.
"We always knew there was a strong possibility that Matt wasn't going to be with Red Bull for the long term," Marsch said Monday in a phone interview. "From early on, there were a lot of discussions and research being done about the replacements."
On Tuesday the club finally settled on one, finalizing a deal with 24-year-old Ghana international Gideon Baah.
"He's young, fast and physical and sort of fits the profile of our team," Curtis told ESPN, adding that Baah, who arrives from HJK Helsinki, will not be a designated player. "He's been the best defender on the best team in Finland for the last two years, and he's played in Champions League [qualifiers]. He's also a good guy. We think he can be with us for a long time."
Baah joins a defensive core that includes veterans Ronald Zubar, Karl Ouimette and Damien Perrinelle, who is ahead of schedule in his recovery from the serious knee injury he suffered during last year's playoffs. Perrinelle could return as early as April.
The club also selected a pair of defenders -- Justin Bilyeu (Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville) and Zach Carroll (Michigan State) -- in last month's MLS SuperDraft. Curtis and Marsch are optimistic that a back line that conceded an Eastern Conference-low 43 goals en route to the MLS Supporters' Shield last season can be even stingier this year, even without Miazga.
"We're bigger than just one player," Curtis said. "This club lost Thierry Henry after the 2014 season and last year, from my perspective, we were better."
That's not to say the Red Bulls wanted to part ways with Miazga, a local kid who had served as the face of the club's successful academy since inking his first pro pact at 17. That's the down side, if it can be called that, of running what many regard as the best youth system in America.
The Red Bulls know it comes with the territory. If things go according to plan, Miazga won't be the last homegrown prospect to move to one of the world's elite squads. Sixteen-year-old defender Tyler Adams, who made his first team debut and scored in a friendly win against Chelsea last summer, could be next in line. New York also signed three academy players to contracts in December and has a league-high seven "Homegrown Players" on its current roster.
"A lot of clubs talk about youth development but don't actually do it," Marsch said. "It's only been a year since Ali and I arrived, but I think we have a proven track record that we are going to integrate and help young players.
"A year ago, nobody knew who Matt Miazga was. To develop and sell him to such a big club, for a big fee, says a lot about our academy and the direction of this club. We hope to have many more stories like it."
If that means being considered a selling club, so be it. The Red Bulls' heavy investment in kids is designed primarily to help the first team win MLS Cup, something the franchise hasn't achieved in its 20 seasons. But if a wealthy European team comes calling for a blue-chipper who wants to go, they're going to listen. Marsch laughed off a comparison to Dutch power Ajax, a major club always competing for domestic honors while also profiting from the sale of its stars. But he allowed that the philosophy is similar.
"This is a little bit of a window into the future of what business with the New York Red Bulls will become," Marsch said of the Miazga deal.
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The Red Bulls got 75 percent of the transfer (reportedly $5 million) and will reinvest most of it in the product, Curtis said. Some of it will help pay for Baah, while other funds will be set aside for tangible upgrades to facilities and personnel -- things like locker rooms, a new training field and support staff -- according to Curtis.
With Baah on board and less than a month to go until the 2016 campaign begins, Marsch's new focus is on making sure that there's no letdown after the somewhat surprising success of 2015. He likes their odds. After all, 10 of his 11 starters are back.
"When I began this project, I thought that Year two would be when things really come together," he said. "We were ahead of schedule last year. Now we have to make sure to maintain a real sense of hunger and avoid complacency. But it's a good group. I think we're hungrier than ever to prove that it wasn't just one year, that we've got more to us, and that we can achieve even more."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.