When defender Damien Perrinelle signed with the Red Bulls last summer he joined an established team that was in the process of making a run to the playoffs. He figured it would take him the rest of the season to settle into a new league in a new country, but by the beginning of the 2015 season he would be ready to challenge for a starting position.
And that’s exactly what happened, but he never thought that the front office, the coach and much of the team would be different than the year before and he would have to establish himself all over again.
That, however, turned out to be the best thing he could have hoped for.
“It was a different atmosphere here last year,” said Perrinelle, who played just seven minutes over two regular-season games but made four starts in the CONCACAF Champions League. “The team was in position already and it wasn’t a good moment for me because there wasn’t the same possibility to express what I could do in the team. This year the coach gives me more confidence and had new eyes on me, and at the end I think I deserve what I have today. The past is the past. It was a good experience for me because I never gave up, I stayed focused and I want to prove to everybody and prove to myself I can play in this league.”
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch knew little about Perrinelle when he took over for Mike Petke in the offseason, but Perrinelle made an impression on Marsch and it turned into an easy decision to stick him in as a central defender and build the rest of the defense around him.
“When I first met him I saw that he really wants to compete, he wants to learn, he wants to get better,” Marsch said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with him. He’s had a real strong, quiet presence within our team. From day one, he’s better than I thought he was from watching him from last year. He has adapted well, he’s adapted well to the way we want to play, he’s adapted well to having different guys alongside him on the line.
“He’s done a good job there. On every level he’s been very impressive, so he’s really been a rock out there.”
Perrinelle was mired in the French second division and was looking for a new challenge. At age 30, it was a make-or-break moment in his career.
“I heard it was league going up,” Perrinelle said of MLS. “The level was there were many good teams but also teams at the bottom. In the last two years the level is going up a lot. A lot of players in the squad tell me that four or five years ago it was too easy to win a game, and this year and the year before everybody can beat everybody. The tempo of the game is faster than in France, but France is more tactical and technical, but I like it. I’m enjoying my time here.”
And then there was the chance to play with Thierry Henry, a legend among French players, as well as fellow Frenchman Peguy Luyindula, which helped make the transition easier.
“When you got Thierry in your team you see by example every day in training, you want to win and be sharp,” Perrinelle said.” You have to follow his example, follow what he does. Of course it was sad when he retired, but now it’s a new story for the club and for me. A lot of players can express themselves more now.
“I never talked too much to Mike Petke last year. To be fair, I wasn’t surprised. He did what he had to do. At the end, it’s still the same. At the end of the day I did not know why I didn’t get more chances to play, but it’s in the past and I try to look forward.
“I want to thank Jesse and (sporting director) Ali (Curtis) because they made a strong decision to keep me in the team. At the end I want to give them what they gave to me. From the first day in the preseason, I said ‘This year is my last chance to play in this league. I want to give everything.’ This year I’m more confident and comfortable with Jesse and Ali and the organization.”
Perrinelle fit right in on the back line, but through injury and international call-ups the rotation in central defense began early. First there was veteran Ronald Zubar, signed in the offseason, but he was injured in the season opener and hasn’t played since. Then came 19-year-old Matt Miazga, an academy player, who stepped in and played well, but is currently with the United States Under-20 team at the Under-20 World Cup. Karl Ouimette was next, and after a shaky start, has also done the job.
“When (Zubar and I) played together we felt so strong and unbeatable,” Perrinelle said. “Then he was hurt. With Matt it was a different story. Matt was younger and you have to take care of him. With Ronald you know he is a veteran and he knows what to do. With Matt it was different but he grew a lot during the last few games. For him it was a good experience and he will be better and better.
“Karl plays like Matt a bit. The difference with Karl is the language. We can speak French together on the pitch. It’s easier for me and for him. Karl did a very, very good job each time we had to call on him. He deserved what he has now, to start the game against Philly and Dallas and New England. Each time he played very well. It’s normal for him to be a starter now.”
Perrinelle also made an impression among his teammates. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who came up against some top defenders in the Belgian league, quickly became a believer.
“Damien’s done a great job,” Kljestan said. “I think from the very beginning of preseason I didn’t know much about him, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good he was, how professional he was, how he likes to play the game. He’s said to me a lot that it’s a pleasure to play with me but for me it’s also a pleasure to play with him.
“I love having a center back that can play out of the back, that likes to look and play balls 30 yards on the ground forward that can unlock the defense, so it’s not only his passing but his one-on-one defending and the way he covers ground to make the plays. He’s been fantastic this season.”
Perrinelle has even enjoyed the long travel in MLS, which has been an adjustment problem for many foreign players coming to the United States.
“When I played in France sometimes we did six hours by bus,” he said. “After you came back just after the game it was five or six in the morning. For me, it’s not so different. The only thing that is different is the time, Eastern time and Western time, but I enjoy it because I can see the United States, see different parts of this country. It’s a good experience. I like it.”