Rochester New York FC: How the only non-MLS owned club is building its squad for the first-ever MLS Next Pro season – recruitment analysis
In two weeks, a new league will start in the USA and Canada. In a football pyramid in which there are no promotions or relegations, the MLS and the USL Championship will continue being the first and second divisions but from 2022, a new third tier will appear alongside the USL League One and the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA): the MLS Next Pro.
According to the league’s official website, they’re committed to “accelerating the future of soccer in North America”, “empowering local communities”, “establishing a platform for innovation and diversity” and “completing the pro player pathway”. In a country in which football (soccer) is growing so quickly, it seems logical for the MLS to have another league that can help them to develop talent in a professional environment fully under their control.
The league will have 21 teams in its first season, 20 MLS-owned B teams and Rochester New York Football Club. Most of these teams already have their squads and will just move from another league (St. Louis City SC will compete here with their B team ahead of their MLS debut in 2023) but the case of Rochester NY FC is different as they haven’t played since 2017 so they’ll need to recruit a whole new squad.
In this recruitment analysis, we’ll see how they have signed their players so far and what they still need to do before the league starts.
The club: history, ownership and staff
Before getting into the proper analysis, it’s interesting to know more about Rochester New York FC. Founded in 1996 as Rochester Raging Rhinos, the club competed in several leagues outside the MLS, winning four league titles (three A-Leagues and one United Soccer League. In 1999, they also became the only non-MLS team to win the U.S: Open Cup in the MLS era. In 2017 the club went on hiatus until now. In 2021, Jamie Vardy took part in the ownership and that same year, the club announced their return to play in the MLS Next Pro this year.
The Sports Director of the club is Lee Tucker, an English footballer who played for Middlesbrough FC, Darlington FC and Woodlands Wellington in Singapore. He was also a coach at Middlesbrough’s academy and the Project Leader for Jamie Vardy’s V9 academy.
As the Head Coach, we find Bruno Baltazar (44, Portugal). Baltazar was a player at the lower leagues in England, Germany, Portugal and Cyprus before becoming a coach. He started his coaching career in the lower leagues in Portugal before assisting Thomas Dooley in the Philippines National Team. He continued his career in Portugal and grew to coach Olhanense in the second division. From there, Baltazar moved to Cyprus, where he coached at AEL Limassol and APOEL and won the league before returning to Portugal to coach Estoril Praia in the first division. Before Rochester, he was part of Sabri Lamouchi’s staff at Nottingham Forest. RNYFC will be his first head coach gig since June 2019.
Assisting Baltazar, we’ll find Guilherme Ramos (37, Portugal). Ramos had a humble playing career in Portugal and Iceland before turning to coaching at 31. He started in the U19 team of Vídir in Iceland before joining Baltazar as an assistant at Olhanense, AEL, APOEL and Estoril Praia. After that, he joined Enosis Neon Paralimniou in Cyprus as an assistant too. In 2020, he joined Baltazar again at Nottingham Forest but he stayed there when Lamouchi left as part of the coaching staff of Chris Hughton until the end of the 2020/21 season.
So far, Rochester NY have recruited 14 players from the allowed 24. As we’ll see later in this recruitment analysis, those players came from eight different leagues in five different countries and represent seven nationalities. But first, let’s have a quick look at how the squad looks at the moment.
Below, we can see how the squad right now, with players placed in their main position and also in the secondary ones. We’ve taken the information regarding the main and secondary positions from Wyscout.
The only positions with more than one natural player are striker and right winger. Rochester NY have just one goalkeeper so they’ll need at least one more. They have one left and one right centre-back, so they’ll need another one, probably two even if Djaló could do the job in an emergency. Vanacker is the only natural right-back even if Williams could be a wing-back. On the left side, Wood is the only natural one but Lamar has played there too.
In centre midfield, Djaló has a more defensive profile while Soares is more an ‘8’. Vanacker can also play there but they still need at least one more central midfielder even if one of the attacking ones could drop and play there.
On the wings, we have two natural players on the right and one on the left but there are still lots of options who can play there. The same happens with the ‘10’ position. Upfront, Rochester seem more than covered with three natural strikers.
The needs seem to be one or two goalkeepers, one or two centre-backs, a full-back on each side and a central midfielder. It will of course depend on the tactics and formations Bruno Baltazar decides to use. In his latest gigs as a head coach at Estoril Praia and APOEL, Baltazar changed between the 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formations so it’s fair to assume he’ll use something in that line.
At the end of this recruitment analysis, we’ll provide a profile with the statistics of some of the players with a significant amount of minutes in the last season (at least 900) in senior leagues with available data so we can understand their strengths and weaknesses and get some insight into the kind of players that have been recruited so far.
Age: the advantage of not being a B team
When looking at Rochester NY’s recruitment, we can’t forget they are the only club in the MLS Next Pro that isn’t the B team of an MLS team, which has its cons – mainly lack of funding and to a lesser extent of top-level infrastructure – and pros – even if the league’s idea seems to develop players, there aren’t any rules regarding players’ age.
Age will probably be the main difference between RNYFC and the rest of the teams. While they can all have players of any age, it’s logical to think that the MLS reserve clubs will play young players who can develop into first-team players instead of just taking players at their peak to win the league. This should be an advantage for Rochester NY.
Looking at the age of the players recruited so far, we see that difference is already a reality. Rochester NY’s average age is 22.5 years, more than a year older than the average age of the league according to transfermarkt (21.4 years old). We haven’t taken months into account so the difference is even bigger. Ten of the fourteen players that form the squad at the moment are above the average age of the league and that experience should play in favour of RNYFC.
Anyway, the squad is young compared to a normal soccer squad. At 26, Ed Williams is the oldest player and he would still be an average-aged player in any of the European top-5 leagues as their average ages range from 25.6 years in Ligue 1 and 28.8 in La Liga.
If we change the focus to the positions, the midfielders are the more experienced with an average age of 24 years. Defenders’ average age is 22 but both centre-backs are 24 and the full-backs lower the average. In the case of forwards, only one of them is older than average and Drai is the youngest player in the squad aged just 18,
It seems like Rochester NY have looked for more experienced players in central positions – the goalkeeper, both centre-backs and both central midfielders are 24 or 25 years old – while letting younger ones play wide or up front. They can balance this with the up to 10 signings they can still add to the squad but they’re likely to take advantage of the lack of self-imposed limits regarding age.
Target markets: the importance of languages
Another very interesting aspect to look at when analyzing a club’s recruitment strategy is the nationality of the players they sign and the leagues where they look for these players.
Starting with the nationalities, Rochester NY have recruited players from seven countries (eight if we consider Djaló’s double nationality). Half of the squad (6 players) are from the league’s countries: USA (5) and Canada (1). Counting just American players, 50.3% of the MLS Next Pro squads are formed by local players so it seems RNYFC are around the league’s average regarding the proportion of foreign/local players.
The other country that has more than one player in the squad is Brazil with three. This isn’t surprising as according to the CIES Football Observatory, Brazil is the biggest exporter of footballers in the world with 1,287 Brazilians playing abroad in 79 out of the 96 countries considered. The other represented countries with one player each are England, Cape Verde, Portugal/Guinea-Bissau and Belgium.
Even if Baltazar is a polyglot (he speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French and English), there’s a clear tendency at Rochester NY to sign Portuguese-speaking players so far. There are five Portuguese speakers in the team with Cape Verde being a former Portuguese colony and having kept the language.
As it’s logical, RNYFC have signed 64% of their players from leagues in the USA. Five of them came from College soccer (Wood from Loyola Marymount Lions, Soares from Quinnipiac Bobcats, Costa from SMU Mustangs, Brigida from Oral Roberts and Popp from Charlotte 49ers), three from the USL Championship, the second tier (Batista from OKC Energy, Rissi from Austin Bold and Drai from Orange County), and one from the National Independent Soccer Association, the third division (Batiz from New Amsterdam FC).
Interestingly, just three of the five players Rochester New York have recruited from American leagues are Americans/Canadians. The other two, Costa and Soares, are Brazilian and Cape Verdean respectively.
Finland is the other market RNCFC have exploited. They’ve taken two players from there, one from the first division (Djaló from HJK Helsinki) and one from the second (Inalien from JIPPO). The sample isn’t big enough to say Finland is a key market for them but it’s certainly a surprising coincidence.
The rest of the signings came from the Brazilian Série B (Caíque from Vitória), the English League One (Williams from Doncaster Rovers) and the Dutch Eerste Divisie (Vanacker from NAC Breda).
To finish this recruitment analysis, we’ll introduce briefly each of the 14 signings Rochester NY FC have made so far. For those who played over 900 minutes in a senior league last season, we’ll provide a longer introduction with a data profile too.
Caíque – Goalkeeper
In goal, Rochester NY have signed Caíque (24, Brazil), who joins on loan from EC Vitória. In the 2020/21 season, Caíque played on loan at Ermis Aradippou in the Protathlima Cyta, the Cypriot first division. There, he played 30 games and despite his 10 clean sheets, he couldn’t avoid his team’s relegation. Upon his return to Vitória, he didn’t enjoy any playing time.
Previous to that, Caíque had some experience in the Brazilan Série A (22 games, 2 clean sheets) and B (3 games, no clean sheets). He has 6 caps with Brazil U20, including a game against England U20 where he saved a penalty to Adam Armstrong and conceded from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, both in the EPL now.
From Caíque’s data profile above, we can see he was a quite average goalkeeper in Cyprus. He conceded at the expected rate of 1.4 goals per 90 and his save percentage (66.9%) was around the average of the league. With his feet, it looks like his team’s tactics demanded him to kick long and he did that with a good reach given his 2.76 passes to the final third per 90 and his average pass length of 38.81 meters.
Standing at 1.98m / 6’6’’ and weighing 100kg / 220 lb, Caíque’s presence and experience should be an asset for Rochester NY. Considering a big part of the squad speaks Portuguese and his international experience, his communication should be fine too. They still have to sign at least another goalkeeper before MLS Next Pro starts in two weeks.
Gustavo Rissi – Centre-back
Risso is a Brazilian right-footed centre-back who has spent most of his senior career in the USA and who arrives in Rochester NY from Cruzeiro as a free agent. He’s played 37 games in the USL Championship for Austin Bold since 2019, always on loan from Cruzeiro. Previously, he had some senior experience playing on loan at Ipatinga and Boa Esporte, two lower-league clubs in Brazil, and was part of the Brazil U15 squad.
Standing at 1.84m / 6’0’’, Rissi isn’t a massive centre-back but it looks like he does well in 1v1 situations given he wins 70.81% of his defensive duels. He’s also quite proactive and reads the game well with 6.79 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90. He has some problems in the air and wins an above-average 56.63% of his aerials.
He looks like a ball-playing centre-back, getting the ball forward quite often and ranking quite well in progressive and through passes. He’s also very direct with 7.04 long passes per 90 and an average pass length of 24.48 meters, which explains his low passing accuracy of just 83.78%.
Coming from a theoretically higher level (MLS Next Pro is considered the third tier in the USA while the USL Championship is the second even if there aren’t promotions or relegations), Rissi should be an important part of Rochester NY’s squad. His experience in the country will be crucial to lead the club’s defensive line.
Lamar Batista – Centre-back
Alongside Risso, we’ll find Batista, an American left-footed centre-back who’s 24 years old too. Despite his relatively young age, Batista has plenty of experience in senior soccer, having played 64 games in the USL Championship and 23 in the USL League One. After one year at the University of California Santa Barbara, Batista joined Portland Timbers to play with Timbers 2 and then Los Angeles FC but spent all his time there on loan at Phoenix Rising and Tucson. After that, he played for North Texas, Colorado Springs Switchbacks and Oklahoma City Energy before joining Rochester NY for the first-ever MLS Next Pro season.
Looking at Batista’s statistical profile, he looks like a great partner for Rissi. With his 1.98m / 6’6’’, he stands out in the air and wins 70.49% of his aerial duels. His 67.44% success rate in defensive duels suggests he’s strong and quite mobile in 1v1. He doesn’t stand out for his interceptions and commits lots of fouls.
On the ball, he’s an excellent ball carrier with 1.64 progressive runs and 1.4 successful dribbles per 90. Like Rissi, his passes are very direct and his 11.24 progressive passes per 90 look excellent even if his overall accuracy of 80.98% is quite poor.
Batista seems an intelligent choice to partner with Rissi as they complement each other while also fitting the same pattern in terms of build-up and ball progression.
Will Inalien – Striker
In attack, we find Inalien, an American 22-year-old striker who can also play coming inside from the left. Inalien has spent all his senior career so far in Finland after Portland Timbers’ academy aged 19 and without a single senior appearance neither for the first or second teams.
In Finland, Inalien has played 48 games in Ykönnen, the second division, scoring 12 goals for Jaro and JIPPO. He also played 21 games in Kakkonen, the third division, scoring 20 goals for Jakobstads Bollklubb. His 0.6 goals per 90 in Finland are an excellent record. The profile below is from Inalien’s 2021 season in which he only scored 5 goals in 26 games.
Standing at 1.88m / 6’2’’, Inalien is a quite big striker but still likes to drift wide and looks quite good at that. He stands out for his dribbling (2.81 successful dribbles per 90) and ball carrying ability (1.92 progressive runs per 90). Despite his size, he’s not especially good in the air and wins just 25.22% of his aerials.
Despite not passing the ball too often, he usually advances with his passes as proven by his 2.32 progressive passes and 1.6 passes to the box per 90. However, he doesn’t have a lot of quality to assist and averages just 0.28 key passes and 0.06 xA per 90.
His scoring ability seems decent. He gets into quite good positions considering he doesn’t play as a pure ‘9’ (0.28 xG per 90) but his finishing last season was subpar as he scored just 0,2 goals per 90 and just 40% of his shots were on target.
A young striker with a nice record and some interesting abilities, Inalien will probably take his first senior experience in his country as an opportunity to score some goals and earn an opportunity at a higher level.
Rest of the squad
To finish the analysis, we’ll have a quick look at the other players and give some information and statistics about them.
Milan Vanacker, 20, right-back – the former NAC Breda right-back started his career at Club Brugge but made his professional debut for NAC Breda, where he played just 7 games in the Dutch second division. He played for Belgium at U15, U16 and U17 levels, playing with the likes of Charles De Ketelaere or Yari Verschaeren.
Christian Wood, 20, left-back – the American defender arrived from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he played 2237 minutes across 22 games in 2021 providing three assists.
Bubacar Djaló, 25, defensive midfielder – the Bissau-born Portuguese defensive midfielder comes from HJK Helsinki in Finland, where he played 20 games in 2021, including 2 for their B team in the second division and 2 in the Conference League group stage. He came through the academy at Sporting CP, playing for their U19 and B teams including 42 in the Portuguese second division. He was part of Portugal U18 and U19 and has played with some top players like Rúben Dias, Rafael Leão or Merih Demiral.
Paulo Soares, 20, central midfielder – the Cape Verdian arrives at RNYFC from the Quinnipiac Bobcat, where he played 2006 minutes across 24 games in 2021, scoring a goal and providing four assists.
Raymond Drai, 18, left winger – the American is the youngest player in the squad and comes from Orange County SC, where he played just 161 minutes in 9 games last season, providing one assist.
Gabriel Costa, 25, attacking midfielder – despite his age, the Brazilian attacking midfielder arrives at RNYFC from the Southern Methodist University Mustangs, where he played 2423 minutes in 27 games, scoring 11 goals and assisting another 8.
Ed Williams, 26, right winger – the oldest player in the squad arrives on loan from Doncaster Rovers, where he only managed to play 644 minutes in the last two seasons without any goal contributions. After coming through the academy at Cheltenham, Williams played non-league football for Gloucester and Kidderminster before signing for Doncaster. He represented England C (the non-league national team) twice. He shares the same agent with Jamie Vardy.
Jesus Batiz, 22, right winger – the American winger arrives from New Amsterdam FC in the NISA, the third tier in the USA, where he played 17 games (1094 minutes) and scored three goals last season.
Preston Popp, 22, striker – the Canadian will have his first senior football experience after leaving Charlotte 49ers (University of North Carolina), where he scored 13 goals and assisted 2 in 1894 minutes (26 games) last year.
Dante Brigida, 23, striker – another American forward, Brigida arrives from the Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 2021, he scored 14 goals and assisted 2 in 24 games (1996 minutes).
Recruiting a whole squad is always a fascinating task. It’s challenging as it requires a lot of knowledge and decisions but also beautiful as it allows those in charge to build something personal and adapted to their football ideas.
At Rochester New York FC, there’s still some work to do in the two weeks until the MLS Next Pro starts but the process is an interesting case study for those interested in recruiting. Following them in the first season of the new league after analyzing how they recruited will be very exciting.