Sean Nealis only wanted to be prepared.
Opportunities proved to be rare through two years with the Red Bulls for the Long Island-raised centerback. Just eight MLS starts, a notable adjustment after four years and 69 starts in 72 appearances for Hofstra, as well as being a multi-sport athlete at Massapequa High School.
As his third MLS season approached this year, Nealis said his main concern was not his minutes, but staying sharp when, or if, called upon. Yet nearly a third of the way through the Red Bulls' campaign, Nealis has been called upon by head coach Gerhard Struber again and again.
The Long Islander is one of just three players to start all 11 matches for the Red Bulls (5-1-5, 16 points), along with captain Sean Davis and keeper Carlos Coronel. And with a long-term injury to fellow centerback Aaron Long, Nealis suddenly is the steady, reliable leader on the RBNY backline.
"It was more just to perform at the best level I can and just try to be ready," Nealis told Newsday of his mindset entering 2021. "I think I played pretty well in preseason and then unfortunately guys got injured and we’ve had to step up in certain areas, and thankfully, I stepped into that role."
Nealis has yet to step out of it.
Following Saturday’s 2-1 win at Orlando City SC, his 945 minutes are most among Red Bulls centerbacks, nearly double the field time for each of his most recent partners, Tom Edwards and Andrés Reyes. Nealis has played every minute for the Red Bulls since the start of May, missing just one half of action after a tactical substitution early in the season.
At age 24, Nealis isn’t exactly a veteran presence, but he has enough experience in the league to understand what’s been at stake for him and his young teammates.
"I think as soon as you sign your professional contract, no matter what your age, you’ve got to perform to expectations, you’ve got to succeed or you won’t be playing anymore," Nealis said.
Struber, the Red Bull loyalist in his first season coaching the New York club, said Nealis brings an attentiveness and attitude he wants for the organization’s high-energy system.
"With Sean, we have a player in our team who always in every game has a high focus, a high concentration and he is outstandingly reliable in the defense with his behavior," Struber said. "He’s ready, he’s a player with a very, very good attitude and he brings in every game everything that he can. I think that gives the backline a good feeling, and also for me, I can trust him in every game."
The high level of focus Struber praised in Nealis in part comes from a competitive training environment fostered by the Austrian coach, Nealis said.
"I think you just work on it in practice. It’s like that old cliché, you practice how you play, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I think if you go out and be attentive in practice and in the film room, it’s just going to translate to the game. How you do everything is how you do anything, and I think the more attentive we are in practice, the better we usually perform on game day."
The defender also believes that mentality was developed battling his brothers in anything and everything growing up in Massapequa. His oldest brother Jimmy went to Georgetown and appeared with the Cosmos in 2013-14, older brother Connor played at Binghamton, and younger brother Dylan also played at Georgetown and joined Nashville SC this season from Inter Miami.
"It’s always been an intense, competitive household, and even just on Long Island itself it’s always just been competitive where I’ve played, so I always enjoyed that competitive atmosphere. I like to thrive on that competition and winning mentality," Nealis said.
Nealis’ intangibles and the club’s injuries may have led him to a spot in the lineup, but his defensive ability has kept him in it. His improved technical skills only further his case to remain.
"When we look back at our last game in Atlanta, he won every aerial dual, every one. For us at the moment, especially when so many teams are playing successful crosses, we need a player like him," Struber said. "He’s improved in the style of play, in more directions. He’s more comfortable on the ball. We make the necessary improvements with him right now and he’s a player who brings in every single game a good performance, I’m very happy with him."