HANOVER, N.J. — When you’re a strong, physical and fast centerback from Long Island, New York, the comparisons were bound to happen.
“Sean Nealis has a real chance because of his attitude and his mentality,” New York Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said of the rookie defender after training Thursday. “He comes to work, he comes to improve every day. Physically he’s gifted and strong, he’s fast. He almost seems like a young Tim Parker, reads situations really well, he’s excellent in the air and he’s a real competitor.”
Nealis and Parker are both part of the close-knit Long Island soccer community. Nealis hails from Massapequa and Parker from Hicksville, Nassau County towns separated by 11 miles or a 30-minute drive depending on traffic on the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway.
Parker is three years older than Nealis and is close friends with Sean’s older brother Jimmy. In fact it was Jimmy Nealis, who was selected in the second round of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, but never played for the Houston Dynamo, who contacted Parker when his brother was drafted last month.
“Jimmy texted me when Sean got drafted and just told me to look out for him,” said Parker, who plays with Jimmy Nealis in the offseason.
Sean Nealis remembers sitting in the stand at Belson Stadium when Parker’s St. John’s Red Storm met Jimmy Nealis’ Georgetown Hoyas.
Now he watches closer as Parker, the established MLS standout defender, works through preseason.
“Every day I see him do things on the ball, off the ball where I see I need to emulate and grow and integrate that into my game,” Nealis said. “He’s had a fantastic career so far and hopefully I can do some of the things he’s done in his career.”
Parker is a natural mentor for Nealis, who is trying to learn the intricacies of playing centerback in the Red Bulls system.
“I try to talk to him as much as I can, just about little things I can pick up when I’m watching him,” Parker said of Nealis. “It’s good. Getting guys in who are young and athletic like that, they can kind of buy in to the speed at which we want to play, but how we want to play is kind of difficult to ingrain. Getting them into that is tough.”
All indications are that Nealis has impressed in the preseason. With Aaron Long at the U.S. men’s national team’s January camp, Nealis and fellow newcomer Amro Tarek have had more reps alongside Parker at the heart of the Red Bulls defense.
Armas said whether it’s been his play in preseason games or training sessions or even working closely with assistant coaches CJ Brown and Bradley Carnell, who were both former professional defenders, Nealis has done well to soak everything in.
“It’s been a lot on Sean and he’s really taken it well,” Armas said. “My initial impressions are that he’s done great and we’re seeing areas where we need to work and we’re getting to work on that.”
Nealis, who played at Hofstra University, earned an invite to the Red Bulls collegiate combine in late December. There, he said, he was put through a lot of the aspects of the Red Bulls game plan, including rest defense and forward defending. On the ride back to Long Island, Nealis felt he did well.
And then came the MLS SuperDraft, when Nealis called the moment he was picked “extreme elation.”
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Nealis said. “New York’s a great place and they have a great staff, great players here. It’s been a big learning curve, but it’s been enjoyable.”
It is also a place that isn’t afraid to give young players valuable minutes, which also appealed to Nealis.
Although he hasn’t gotten the chance yet to train with him, Nealis also looks up to Long, who worked his way through the USL to eventually become one of the United States’ elite defenders.
“He shot up through the ranks and now he’s one of the best defenders in the country,” Nealis said. “That’s something I like to see and hopefully something I can cling onto and do so myself.”
For now, though, Nealis is focused on the next part of preseason and the club’s trip to Tucson where the Red Bulls will compete in the Mobile Mini Sun Cup again.
It will be another chance for Nealis to impress, and for Parker to mentor.
“He’s been good. He’s a fellow Long Islander I can’t really say a bad thing, but Sean’s done well,” Parker said. “He’s physically gifted, he’s athletic. That’s kind of what we look for in centerbacks here. Obviously just getting him up to speed with what we like to do. How the centerbacks play here is kind of unlike anywhere else. It’s something out of his comfort zone, but he’s done well so far.”