On June 30, the Wilmington Hammerheads beat the New York Red Bulls Reserves 2-1 in an MLS Reserve League / USL PRO game at Red Bull Arena. The match meant nothing to New York, and Wilmington’s 2-1 win was met by barely a shrug.
But the stage was being set. The MLS summer transfer window opened on July 9, and the New York Red Bulls added three players over the next month. Three players hailing from three different countries, aged 28-32, and without a whole lot of name recognition. Yet this trio, two of whom appeared as trialists in that loss to Wilmington, have made significant contributions to New York’s Supporters’ Shield run during the last three months and are now key parts of the team.
Ugandan defender Ibrahim Sekagya (July 11, pronounced suh-KYE-uh), English forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (July 24), and Australian defender David Carney (Aug. 8) have each appeared in more than half of the games for which they have been available, and the common theme connecting their quick transition has been “experience.”
“These are really experienced players who have played at the highest level for quite a while,” midfielder Dax McCarty said of the trio. “There was a little bit of uncertainty with the roles they would play, but every signing we’ve had this summer has been tremendous for us.”
None of the three is the big-name Designated Player that many teams expected New York to add, but the decision to add three players rather than one was fairly straightforward for head coach Mike Petke.
“Those three acquisitions were better off than us just going out there to sign a DP for a DP, and I’m glad Andy [Roxburgh] was on board with that,” Petke said. “To bring in a guy midway through the season that’s a so-called superstar and have to fit him into your system, it wasn’t something we were big on, and I’m glad that we held off on it.”
Sekagya and Wright-Phillips arrived earlier than Carney; both played in that Reserve League game against Wilmington and several others before seeing the field for the first team. Petke said the process of researching the players – aided significantly by Sekagya’s six successful seasons with sister club Red Bull Salzburg and the familiarity of Tim Cahill with his international teammate, Carney – and the training time all three had before stepping into the lineup were both keys to their success.
“You don’t just sign a player from their ability; you sign a player for what you think their mentality is and how they’re going to be in the locker room,” Petke said. “These are guys who were here for a little bit, and we got to meet and know [them], and [we] talked to a lot of people about [them] before.”
Wright-Phillips has a goal and an assist this season, both against the Houston Dynamo, who could be the Red Bulls’ opening playoff opponent. Sekagya has scored opportunistic goals in the last two games, but his presence and that of Carney (7 starts in the last 8 games) has helped calm the back line.
“These are really experienced players who have played at the highest level for quite a while,” McCarty said. “You get three really, really good players who can contribute in four or five positions, and that’s just as valuable, if not more valuable, than bringing in one big game-changer that can only contribute in one position.”
While adjusting to the style of play and communicating with teammates can often be a problem for international players, all three speak English and have had no trouble meshing with their teammates.
“They’re professionals that have a lot of experience, plain and simple,” Petke said. “Getting acclimated and acquainted with the guy next to you, that’s a Monday-through-Friday thing. We do a lot of things with these guys in game-like situations [so] it’ll be quick to get acclimated, and I think they’ve responded well.”
Wright-Phillips and Carney both credited their teammates and the easy-going locker room as contributing factors to their comfort and ease with the Red Bulls.
“I think it’s down to the boys,” Wright-Phillips said in explaining the seamless transition. “A lot of the players are a similar age to me. Everyone’s nice, and they’ve helped me settle in.”
Winning sure doesn’t hurt. All three played in the Supporters’ Shield-clinching win over the Chicago Fire on Sunday, with Sekagya and Carney starting and Wright-Phillips coming on as a late sub. Lifting two more trophies, however, remains New York’s goal.
“There’s nothing better than winning a trophy like that,” Carney said earlier this year. “I had the experience at Sydney FC once. We went to the final and won the final, and there’s nothing like that.”