Entering this MLS season, you wouldn’t have been blamed for pondering Omir Fernandez’s role with the Red Bulls.
The 23-year-old attacking midfielder started eight of the club’s final nine regular season games in 2021, but soon found himself on a squad with deeper attacking talent than the year prior. Lewis Morgan and Luquinhas were brought in to vie for attacking midfield spots. Cristian Casseres Jr. and wunderkind Caden Clark – who both started more games than Fernandez last season – returned as well.
If it looked like Fernandez would wilt alongside New York’s talented cohort of midfielders, but it has been the opposite. The Bronx native has started 14 of a possible 16 league games for the Red Bulls in 2022. He is tied for the team lead with three assists and has two goals to boot.
“Competition has always been an important thing,” Fernandez told The Post in an exclusive interview. “It’s always good to have the options that we have in the midfield.”
Fernandez is used to fighting for his spot. Before his late-season run, he hadn’t started a game in 2021. He had made eight starts combined in the two seasons before. Since entering the first XI in September, however, he’s maintained a grip on his starting role in the Red Bulls’ young, energetic lineup.
“I knew that once I had my chance I wasn’t gonna go back and I think it translated to this year, “ he said. “[Coach Gerhard Struber and I] have a lot of conversations, me and him, about where I can always improve and do better, but he’s really happy with me and I have so much trust [in him] that he has in me as well.”
Fernandez said he’s talked with Struber about when to keep the ball versus trying to beat defenders and evolving his IQ past the “tricky winger” the coach initially viewed him as. He’s tried to be a bit more of a facilitator as well. Struber can see the young attacker’s efforts to improve.
“I can see always a hungry boy,” he said during a virtual presser last week. “Always he [comes] into my office and ask after trainings, after games, ‘what can I do better?’”
Fernandez will hope to be in top form as the Red Bulls prepare to face NYCFC for the first time this season on Wednesday night, in the quarterfinals of the US Open Cup. The Red Bulls will be welcoming the defending MLS champs to Harrison and Fernandez and his teammates know they’re capable of unsettling their rivals in a battle between two of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
Despite barely scraping into the playoffs last season and getting dumped out in the first round, the Red Bulls were a thorn in New York City FC’s side in 2021, taking seven points from a possible nine and winning at Yankee Stadium. Fernandez scored the lone goal in that game and knows the team’s high-pressing blueprint can rattle NYCFC again.
“We try to disrupt the way certain teams wanna play,” Fernandez said. “We know New York City likes the possession of the ball, and likes to have time and space. And we’re a team that brings a lot of intensity and pressure, and a lot of dynamic [movement] and forward running and all this stuff that they’re not used to seeing every single week.
“We know that they’re a good team… but they can’t match our intensity.”
If the Red Bulls high-octane pressing has been a staple of the side for years, Luquinhas has brought a new wrinkle to this year’s team. The Brazilian, who joined in February from Poland’s Legia Warsaw, has instantly brought quality to the team’s attack and might just be improving Fernandez in the process.
“Without saying much to each other [at first], we just kinda clicked,” Fernandez said of the team’s second-leading scorer. “I think a lot of chemistry is there, even from the very start.
“On the field, he kinda looks at me, and I look at him, and we know what we wanna do. He understands that I’m a player who likes to have the ball at my feet, can make runs in behind, and always wants the ball. And I know that he’s a player that’s really good on his feet and can make that final pass.”
Fernandez has grown since making himself a lineup fixture, and 2022 is already his best year yet from a statistical perspective. Time will tell if he can make the jump from starter to star.
“Now,” Struber said, “it’s the time for the next step.”