Long Island’s Sean Nealis becomes first New York native to captain Red Bulls


As a player for the Massapequa Soccer Club and later for Massapequa High School, Sean Nealis learned how to become a leader.

It wasn’t so much what he said, but what he did on the pitch.

“I always felt that it was important to lead through my actions,” said Nealis. “I felt I was able to lead through my actions went.”

That led to being a captain of the soccer and basketball teams at Massapequa High School, which helped him become the captain his senior year at Hofstra University in 2018.

Sean Nealis during his college playing days at Hofstra. (Credit: Hofstra Athletics)

And now, the veteran defender has been named the new captain of Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls.

“It’s a huge honor to represent this club,” said Nealis.

He became the first New York native to be named Red Bulls captain. His team made the announcement earlier this week.

“It’s got a rich history and tradition,” he said. “There’s a long line of very successful captains and I’ll do the best job I can to try and emulate the captains before me and I’ll think we’ll have a great year.”

The 26-year-old Nealis was the Red Bulls’ second round pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft after a brilliant four-year career at Hofstra. 

He was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 as a senior. That year, he was also an All-CAA and All-ECAC selection while also named to the United Soccer Coaches Scholar All-America First Team.

With the Red Bulls, Nealis has appeared in 76 matches and has made 69 starts during his four years with the club. During his career, he has earned the trust from his teammates and the coaches.

“I am very excited to name Sean captain of our team this season,” said head coach Gerhard Struber. “Sean has proven to be a great leader and has the trust from the whole team and myself to lead us as captain this year.”

Nealis is a fierce competitor on the field.

Since 2021, he is the MLS leader in aerial duels and last season he set single-season career highs with 33 games played and started, 2,953 minutes, 21 shots and 5 shots on goal. He has two goals and four assists during his career, but his primary job is to anchor the backline and help prevent the other team from scoring.

Communication is very important, especially if you’re a leader and the captain.

“I’m learning to be a better vocal leader and talk out important points throughout the game and throughout video,” said Nealis. “I think that will only continue to improve on my end.”

Nealis and the Red Bulls are getting ready for the start of the 2023 Major League Soccer season, which will commence this Saturday, Feb. 25, in Orlando with the home opener set for Saturday, March 4, against Nashville.

The Red Bulls have qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs in each of the last 13 seasons, the longest current streak in the league. In fact, they have only missed the playoffs four times in franchise history dating back to 1996.

But will this be the year that the Red Bulls finally win that elusive MLS Cup? 

“We feel really good about the group of guys,” said Nealis.

“We don’t have as much turnover as we had in the past so everyone kind of knows the identity of the team and how we play. It’s shown through pre-season and we just want to be the best we can be during the regular season and take things from there.”

And this season will certainly have a different feel for Nealis as he will wear the captain’s armband.

He is everything that the Red Bulls could ask for in a captain.

“I’m pretty disciplined,” said Nealis. “I’m ready to work every day, day in and day out, and give it my all. I think that translates over time to output and I’ve shown growth from when I started in the league until now. Hopefully I can continue to grow as a player and as a leader.”

Nealis cut his teeth on being a leader and captain playing soccer on Long Island. And now, he’s the captain of the New York Red Bulls with one goal in mind — to hoist the MLS Cup!

New York Red Bulls defender Sean Nealis (15) during an NCAA soccer match against Barcelona, Saturday, July 30, 2022 in Harrison, N.J. Barcelona won 2-0. (AP Photo/Vera Nieuwenhuis)

Fun fact:

Sean Nealis isn’t the only Nealis on the Red Bulls roster. His younger brother Dylan also plays for the team as a defender. Dylan, 24, was acquired by the Red Bulls in 2021 via a trade with Nashville SC.

Top: New York Red Bulls defender Sean Nealis (15) wearing his new captain armband in a pre-season game this offseason. (Credit: New York Red Bulls)