Sean Nealis of Red Bulls during an MLS regular season game...

Sean Nealis of Red Bulls during an MLS regular season game against Columbus Crew at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ on Saturday March 20, 2022.  Credit: Mike Lawrence/New York Red Bulls

When Sean Nealis looks at the roll of captains during the Red Bulls’ first 27 seasons, he sees a group of team icons and strong, outspoken leaders.

“A lot of legends of this club,” he said.

Nealis, and his teammates, believe he’s ready to join them.

The Massapequa-raised Nealis was named the 15th captain of the Red Bulls after a player vote, Newsday has learned. The defender takes over the role after the offseason departure of fellow centerback Aaron Long.

“When I look at the long list of captains from Dax [McCarty], Luis [Robles], Sean [Davis] and Aaron, the list goes on as well,” Nealis told Newsday. “It’s just an honor to be part of that group and hopefully I can do as good a job as them, and I think I’m ready for that task.”

Nealis joins a group that includes former world soccer and MLS stars Thierry Henry, Juan Paplo Angel, Claudio Reyna and Tony Meola. He is the first native New Yorker to hold the role for the team formerly known as the MetroStars.

“I think those guys all became big-time vocal leaders, that’s an important part of the role,” Nealis said. “Just being able to vocalize your thoughts and talk things out to teammates and coaches and kind of play that mediator role is important. I’ve learned from them, watching them, and hopefully I can emulate them as best I can.”

Sean Nealis in action for the Red Bulls. Nealis is...

Sean Nealis in action for the Red Bulls. Nealis is the first New York-born captain in club history. Credit: New York Red Bulls

Now in his fifth MLS season out of Hofstra, Nealis said he wasn’t too surprised to take over the role after captaining the club a few times in Long’s absence last season. Still, it meant a great deal knowing he had his teammates’ blessing after a player vote during a recent preseason camp in Florida.

“It was a very cool honor, I’m very grateful and hopefully I can do a great job this year for them in a leadership role,’’ he said, “and I’ll be leaning on them as much as possible to help me along.”

The Red Bulls appear to be bringing some stability to their on-field leadership after a few years of changing faces. Long held the title for just one season before departing for LAFC. Davis, a homegrown New Jersey native, was captain in 2020 and ’21 and Robles held the role in 2018 and ’19.

The club also was cycling through head coaches during that stretch, replacing Jesse Marsch with Brentwood native Chris Armas after the former left for Europe in 2018. Armas eventually was replaced by Gerhard Struber, now in his third full season in charge.

Nealis plans to be with the club for the long haul, signing a new deal last season that runs through 2026 with an option for an additional year.

“A lot of guys, we all kind of have the identity down now,” Nealis said. “This is kind of the first year in the last few years where the turnover in players isn’t so high. So we all kind of are going into this season with a good mindset.”

This isn’t Nealis’ first time as captain of a team. During his senior year at Hofstra, he was the leader of a Pride team that reached the 2018 CAA final after a slow start.

“It was a good year overall and good learning experience on my end,” he said. “We came out of the gate and didn’t really have wins in the first four or five games, and as the year progressed, we had [eight] shutouts in a row. So it was difficult to get through those times early on but it made us better throughout the season, and maybe I’ll lean on what I learned during that time to help us this year.”

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