After all, the rookie would have to crack a back four that had the best defense in the league last year.
Nealis had other ideas.
Nealis has two starts and seven total appearances for the Red Bulls this year. His latest showing came Friday night where he had 45 minutes off the bench following Tim Parker’s injury right before halftime. Given injuries to the backline and international call-ups, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Nealis get another start on Wednesday night against the Houston Dynamo.
Nealis stepped in and performed well in what was a difficult match for the Red Bulls’ backline. He won his aerial battles and his duels, putting in another solid shift.
A second-round pick of the Red Bulls in this winter’s MLS SuperDraft, Nealis has stepped into some tough positions this year and shown plenty of promise.
“I think everyone that comes into the league, wants to play,” Nealis said on Monday after training. “I think if you get the opportunity, you try to harness it. Hopefully, I do that the best I can. I’m taking it day-by-day and hopefully I can succeed at what I’m doing.
“I think in the back of my head, I think everyone thinks they deserve to play.”
Things have been a bit choppy in recent weeks for the Hofstra graduate.
It was a bit of a rookie slump for Nealis, who had a difficult second half in a June 8 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Union. Then a few days later, the entire backline struggled in a loss to the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup.
On Friday in the win over the Fire, Nealis slotted in next to starting center back Amro Tarek, who has been a big addition for the club this year and rock-steady in his own right. Tarek spoke with Nealis before the second half got underway and told the rookie “to keep his first couple of actions simple.”
Nealis came in and was impressive in his 45 minutes, a showing that did not go unnoticed by his teammates.
“Absolutely – [Nealis has] big character.
When you’re playing and having some mistakes and you find yourself in a tough situation like this, it’s not easy at all,” Tarek said. “Even when you have these couple mistakes, in big games when you step in tough moments, we always trust him. He did well.”
Nealis, who attended the college combine held at the Red Bulls’ facility for local players prior to the draft, continues to show growth. Even with the expected twists and turns of being a rookie, he has grown into being a solid role player.
Not too bad for a rookie who wasn’t expected to factor into too many first-team minutes this year.
“I think there’s always going to be growing pains stepping into a new role as a young guy,” Nealis said.
“We got great guys here that have helped me come around. Tim, in terms of growth, has helped me come around. If I just can get better at that, helping them improve, helping them help me improve, I should be fine.”
RED BULLS NOTES
– Parker’s injury is perhaps not as bad as feared, with head coach Chris Armas admitting on Monday that the player is moving around fairly well. He termed the injury “a mid-foot sprain”, but said that the injury would shelve Parker only “short-term.”
– The Red Bulls face a Dynamo team that is much improved on last year and currently sits above the red line in the Western Conference. They are an impressive 6-0-3 at home, making Wednesday a tough match-up.
But it is also a match also that they might be prone to overlook.
Following their midweek trip to Houston, the Red Bulls play at Atlanta United next Sunday, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year and a side that has become a real rival. The following weekend, they host New York City FC, a match that needs no explanation given its derby status.
Alex Muyl said that the idea of the team being susceptible to a trap game isn’t necessarily something they think they will fall victim to in Houston.
“I think it’s true, you’re always trying to come up with what is the game that we’re going to overlook,” Muyl said. “Everyone is always thinking that we’re looking at Atlanta, a team we have a lot of history, New York City, a team we have a lot of history with…I think here, maybe it’s the way we compete every day, everything we do is focused on what’s ahead of us.
“I think Houston is someone that no one is going to take lightly here or come without their A-game. We’re ready for them.”
[Watch the Red Bulls Take On the Houston Dynamo Wednesday at 8:30 PM on MSG+ & MSG GO. Get the App Now]