When Jonny Steele was acquired by the Red Bulls in a preseason trade with Real Salt Lake in late February, the expectations for the Northern Irishman were relatively low. Steele looked like a depth player unlikely to be an impact type in New York.
But after 22 starts this year, Steele has been nothing short of a season-changer for his new club. It has gotten to the point that he might get a call up to his national team soon. Steele scored the Red Bulls' third and final goal Aug. 3 in a 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City, and he was named to the MLS Team of the Week as well.
But he isn’t just scoring goals — he is showing a creative spark down the left flank and now has a willingness to take on players on the dribble, something the hard-working left winger didn’t show earlier in the season.
“I always felt like I was a decent crosser of the ball and in Salt Lake, they didn’t cross the ball. That’s no disrespect to Salt Lake; they like to keep the ball and that’s their system, and it works,” Steele told Metro. “Here I feel like if I get the ball wide, I can put it in or do something with it. I have to keep working and playing consistent. There are good players here and I’m learning from them. I’m going to get better. This is my first year here, I’ve played 22 games and I expect to come back better and fitter.
“It is a confidence thing and I think they’re willing to let me do more things. It isn’t about beating players; I’m not a player who is going to dribble down the line and beat six players. But what I will do is work hard and leave it all out there.”
It hasn’t been a quick road to success for Steele, who at 27 years old is just hitting his prime. He has been in the United States on and off since 2004 and has primarily played in the lower divisions, even in the Major Indoor Soccer League, to eke out a living. But now with the glamour club of MLS, the industrious Steele is gaining admirers here and abroad.
While nothing is definite right now, Steele could well be called up to Northern Ireland’s national team for their slate of September World Cup qualifying matches, based solely off his performance this year for the Red Bulls. Nothing is concrete but Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh has been advocating his midfielder to the Northern Ireland federation.
“Jonny, to me, is a workhorse. Anything after that is a bonus. He has, what, three goals? And a number of assists. He’s a guy who goes out there and does what he is asked to do, especially on the defensive end,” head coach Mike Petke said. “He’s a hard worker. In this league, that’s the best starting point to have — a hard worker and then you go from there.”
His love for this club — he calls himself “blessed” to be a Red Bull — doesn’t stop with just himself. His father, Dan Steele, recently suffered a stroke and continues to recover in his Northern Ireland home. When three Red Bulls players — goalkeeper Santiago Castano, forward Amando Moreno and defender Matt Miazga — got called up by the United States youth national team recently for the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland, Steele’s father wanted to go support his son’s teammates in the tournament.
He had never met the players before but he knew that they were teammates of his son.
“He said that ‘I’m going to watch them Red Bull boys’ and he watched them that first game and then I got a text from my mom the next day saying that ‘You won’t believe it, he’s dragging me up there again to watch them play,’ because they play every day in that tournament,” Steele said. “And it is good for him since he can’t work for a year so he’s watching all things Red Bull and watches the game and he’s become part of the family. It’s great for him and he got a picture with them and he loved it.”
Follow Red Bulls writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.