Sean Nealis
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas encouraged rookie defender Sean Nealis after a low performance against Vancouver Whitecaps.

Most, if not all, professional players hit bumps in the early stage of their careers. You can say that New York Red Bulls rookie center back Sean Nealis hit an early bump against Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday night.

Nealis was at fault in both of the goals RBNY conceded in their 2-2 draw with the Whitecaps.

In Vancouver’s first goal, the New Yorker attempted to intercept a forward pass to Joaquin Ardaiz but mishit the ball. Nealis sprinted back toward Ardaiz but the Uruguayan starlet beat him on the dribble before crossing the ball. Scott Sutter buried Ardaiz’s cross in the net in the 29th-minute.

Later in the 59th-minute, Nealis conceded a penalty kick for a handball in the box. Vancouver’s striker Fredy Montero scored from the spot.

Despite his mistakes, Nealis was comfortable on the ball and even screamed for a pass from Kyle Duncan in the second half.

Armas acknowledged that Nealis didn’t put up the best of performances on Wednesday but defended his player by explaining how tough it is to play center back in the Red Bulls’ system.

“Center backs on our team generally get put in difficult situations,” Armas said in a post-match press conference. “In transition moments, they have big spaces to deal with, clever attackers. That’s just not easy.”

In fact, New York is one of the toughest teams to play center back in MLS. The reason is their players often press their opponents, leaving their defenders alone on counter attacks.

The two players who’s been starting in the middle of the Red Bulls’ defense are reigning MLS Defender of the Year, Aaron Long, and top-notch defender, Tim Parker.

Armas continued to back up his young protégé, Nealis.

“Of course, we say that defenders get judged for their bad plays. He put out 20, 30, 40 fires tonight, plays that he does well on, maybe a couple of slips. He’s a young player but he gives a lot.

“That’s why he’s out there. He got courage, he’s growing quickly.”

The 46-year-old coach also previously admitted that starting against Vancouver was a big task on Nealis’ shoulders. The former Hofstra University player went into the match with just three MLS appearances.

“The first thing I’d say about Sean Nealis is we put a big demand on him. We knew it. Physically, that was a quick turn-around for him [RBNY played a fast game on Sunday against Atlanta United],” Armas said. “We knew that going in that would be a challenge. That’s why a lot of the guys got the night off.”

Before the game versus Vancouver, the defender had a promising start of his professional career. Although he was drafted in the second round of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, Nealis shined during New York Red Bulls’ preseason, even scored a header versus Portland Timbers on Feb. 17.

The team was impressed and signed him before the start of the campaign. It’s rare for New York to officially sign players they drafted before the start of the season. The club saw something in the young defender.

“When we drafted Sean we knew we were getting a quality player, but throughout preseason camp he has displayed qualities we look for on and off the field,” RBNY sporting director Denis Hamlett told the team’s website.

Just a match before The Metros’ encounter with the Whitecaps, the rookie registered the second-assist of New York’s famous 1-0 win over their rivals Atlanta.

Prior to that, Nealis scored his first MLS goal against F.C. Dallas as he unintentionally deflected Michael Murillo’s shot in the net. He did, however, gave away a goal in this encounter. The center back was caught ball watching when Jesus Ferreira headed the ball in the net.

Nealis started the season with the second team. He notched one goal for them in nine appearances and captained the team once.

The first-year defender has been called on the first team because of Long’s injury and Parker’s suspension.

Despite his mistakes against the Canadian side, Armas made it clear that Nealis is still part of his plans.

“Listen, we’re happy with Sean,” he said. “We’re happy with him. We put a lot on him. It wasn’t our best night as a team, all of us. He’s going to be a good player for us.”

Originally from Haiti, Ralph 'Onz' Chery started his writing career as a City College of New York student with The Campus. He also wrote for First Touch, the Cosmopolitan Soccer League and other local leagues. After graduating, Onz started covering the New York Red Bulls for ESNY and joined Haitian Times.