HARRISON, N.J. — Connor Lade had a simple goal when he signed a homegrown contract with the New York Red Bulls.
It wasn’t about appearances, goals or even trophies.
“It’s not that often guys can play for the hometown team for their whole career. That’s exactly what I wanted to do,” Lade said at the Red Bulls’ season ending availability last week. “There’s nowhere else I want to play. There’s no other team that I want to represent than the Red Bulls.”
The Morristown, New Jersey native ably accomplished that, making 153 appearances over the course of eight seasons, becoming the club’s all-time leader in homegrown minutes. He was part of three Supporters’ Shield-winning sides, had five goals and nine assists.
But looking back now that Lade has announced his retirement from soccer, it’s clear his influence was felt more on the training ground and locker room than with match day statistics.
“We use the phrase ‘all in,’ which are not just words to us here, and it’s not to him,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “Because that means that you show up and give everything, every day, when things are good, when things are bad, when you get your number called, when we need more from you in training just with the second team, when he gets injured. The kid just lives and walks with optimism and energy, you can feel that.”
Lade, who joined the Red Bulls academy during his high school days, said Red Bull Arena was always special to him — in a very personal way. It’s where he met his wife, and it’s where the gender reveal for his daughter was made after a Hudson River Derby showdown last year.
— Connor Lade (@clade5) May 5, 2018
Lade felt chills when watching the first team, hoping one day to join them. And the feeling was intensified when he walked out of the tunnel for an MLS match.
“I hope that you guys know I never took that for granted,” Lade told reporters. “I loved every minute of it. And I’ll enjoy the view again from the stands and I’ll be rooting this club on every step of the way.”
Lade, 29, had perspective few athletes have. He knew when it was his time to go. He understood the growing competition at outside back, the dwindling minutes. He knew how the wear and tear of a professional soccer player could take a toll later in life.
“I want to be able to run around with my daughter,” he said, choking back tears. “I want to be able to live a life where I can be there, be comfortable and not hobbled by injuries.”
Bringing Avery on the field for the first time was one of Lade’s most cherished moments with the club.
It was right there with scoring his first goal and the Supporters’ Shield titles. But he’ll miss the locker room and training and just being with the guys — the banter, the practical jokes, the laughter and the tears.
“I think that’s where we find the most about yourself is in the hard times and rallying together I think that’s what’s made this group so special,” Lade said “Even in hard moments where we always have each other’s backs.”
Lade maximized his potential and, according to Armas, his effort — few get to say that.
“If you’re looking at a Red Bull player, and someone suited to the system, how we play, how things are done around the training ground around the arena, it’s Connor Lade,” Bradley Wright-Phillips said “It’s going to be sad to see him go.”
Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett remembers a U.S. Open Cup match in 2017 when Lade, playing center back, took on a much taller Kei Kamara.
“He was the man in that game,” Hamlett said. “Such a competitor.”
Lade’s drive, according to goalkeeper Luis Robles, who arrived midway through Lade’s first season, is unmatched and will be sorely missed.
“I mean this guy, eight years later, the energy that he has is incredible,” Robles said. “It’s almost as if he gets more energy just being a part of this group and helping this group and contributing. And that’s remarkable because it’s entirely selfless.”
Lade said he started thinking about retiring in late summer. He confided in a few of his closest friends and longest teammates — Robles, Ryan Meara and Wright-Phillips — before getting a chance, thanks to Meara who broke the news in the postgame locker room, to address the entire team after the Red Bulls’ 4-3 extra time loss to the Philadelphia Union in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Go in the locker room as Connor Lade makes his tearful announcement regarding his retirement. pic.twitter.com/tTyYKCZYlq
— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) October 23, 2019
“I probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to thank the guys all in one room again, so I’m glad that he did, because they mean the world to me, all the hard work we put in over the years,” Lade said. “I just wanted thank them, thank the club, thank the staff and to have everyone in one room to do so was special.”
Having come up through the academy and how much he loved the community service part of his job as a professional soccer player, Lade said he has no shortage of options in his post-playing career.
But Lade said there’s no hurry to rush into the next thing, not just yet.
“I’m just excited to not necessarily be on the road, watch my daughter grow up and be there for my wife,” Lade said. “Just take a step, a new step, go after some new challenges and I’m excited for the future.”
Regrets? Lade’s had a few, but the biggest, he said, was not being able help deliver the club’s elusive first MLS Cup title.
But for a kid from Morristown who just dreamed of one day wearing the Red Bulls jersey as a pro, the highs absolutely outweigh the lows.
“I had zero expectations going into this,” Lade said. “I was thrilled to be signed. And I just hoped for a chance, and they gave me that. They took a chance on me and that’s all I can ask for.”