Armchair Analyst: Ángel angst

Captain is an RBNY legend, making departure tough to swallow

Juan Pablo Ángel is on his way out of New York.

It may seem an odd subject to spend time on in the playoff run of a season that is threatening to be the best in franchise history. But to borrow a phrase from former Metrostars coach Bob Bradley, “It is what it is.” And what it is is the dominant story coming from the Red Bulls’ camp these past two weeks.

As the situation currently stands, Ángel doesn’t seem to fit into Hans Backe’s plans for 2011, and may not really fit for the rest of 2010, either. The striker who’s led the line since his arrival in 2007, and has been by far the league’s leading scorer during that time (58 goals in league play, 61 in all competitions), has been forced into a tertiary role since the arrival of attacker Mehdi Ballouchy from Colorado.

The reasons, according to Backe, are tactical. He sees Ángel and Thierry Henry, the new face of the franchise, as being the same type of striker. And in a way, the Swede is correct.

Neither Henry nor Ángel fit the traditional, back-to the-goal mold. Both can and do occasionally play that role, holding the ball up and bringing teammates into the play, and Ángel may have a bit more of a facility for it than Henry, but it’s neither’s preferred course of action.

Both are more comfortable facing up to defenders, playing quick give-and-gos with their left midfielder, and interchanging on that side of the pitch. Henry’s spectacular goal against the Rapids last month, courtesy of some nice combination play with Joel Lindpere, is a good example of that. Ángel’s skinning of Yohance Marshall early in the 2-0 win at Los Ángeles a week later – a play that didn’t lead to a goal, but should have – is another.

And the numbers don’t lie; Ángel has scored a full 80 percent of his run-of-play goals from the left side. With Henry preferring to occupy that same channel – he’s such a left sided player that he actually played up top on the left wing in Barcelona’s 4-3-3 – it’s clear that there’s the potential for a traffic jam.

But does that mean Ángel has to go? That’s the question long-time fans are asking, and they’re right to ask it. After all, “preferring” to play in a certain space doesn’t prove an inability to play elsewhere as needs dictate. And Ángel has already shown his willingness and ability to play with another forward who loved drifting left and attacking from that space when, way back in 2007, his most common strike partner was Jozy Altidore.

Altidore has added a ton to his game in the three years since, but back then he was pretty much a one-trick pony. Drift left. Face up. Use superior physicality and one-on-one skills to create space. Shoot. Rinse. Repeat.

Ángel and Altidore, it should be noted, flourished together. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like Ángel and Henry will get that chance.

What does that mean for Ángel’s future? Right now, it seems he’s not willing to take a significant pay cut (he’s the league’s second-leading scorer, after all), and is not willing to come off the bench. In an interview with Brian Lewis of the New York Post, he said he’d like to stay and play another year or two, but isn’t holding his breath for a contract offer.

Red Bull, meanwhile, seem to be eyeing that Designated Player slot that Ángel currently occupies. Backe wants a speedy striker to pair with Henry (the most commonly mentioned name is Notts County’s Luke Rodgers, but surely he can’t be worth a DP tag), and Ángel certainly isn’t that.

Whether it’s Rodgers or someone else, though, the writing is on the wall.

Which brings us to the logistical part of the column. Right now rosters are frozen, so Ángel can’t be traded. There’s also an expansion draft coming up in seven weeks, and the list of guys New York absolutely has to protect is large. Ángel probably isn’t on it.

Is it possible, then, that he could end up on the West Coast, suiting up for Portland after being the first pick in the expansion draft?

Probably not. Ángel wants no part of playing on artificial turf, even the seventh-generation stuff the Timbers are laying down in PGE Park. But if the Timbers or Vancouver Whitecaps (who will also play on turf) select Ángel, they do have an attractive trade chip to shop around the league.

The Galaxy, for example, could use another guy who consistently puts the ball in the net and aren’t afraid to splash a little money around. Plus it should be noted that Ángel’s best year in MLS happened under Bruce Arena, the current LA manager.

Other places make varying degrees of sense. Toronto FC could make a nice offer, and like every other team in the league, would love a guy who’s a proven, consistent double-digit scorer. D.C. United, with all their young talent yet no one who puts the ball in the net with any regularity, could do the same.

The other possibility (aside from leaving the league entirely) is that Ángel becomes the test case for the new re-entry draft, which was part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed between MLS and the MLS Players' Union back in March. No one’s really sure how this will work until it’s tried, and the language leaves a ton of wiggle room. In theory, the team that selects Ángel will have to make a “reasonable offer;” if they don’t, he can turn it down and go back into the re-entry draft process.

As it stands now, United would likely have first dibs.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for the New York faithful, who have already seen two legends (Clint Mathis and John Wolyniec) retire this year, with two more (Mike Petke and Seth Stammler) hanging ‘em up at season’s end. Throw in the departure of their captain, all-time leading scorer and best player in club history, and it’s no surprise that there’s more than a small bit of existential angst among the teams’ long-time fans.

But the game is a business. Roy Keane didn’t finish his career in red. Raul isn’t a Merengue anymore. Jaime Moreno will be playing for someone other than DC in 2011.

Ángel’s story, sadly, will be no different. It is what it is.

Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at matdoyle76@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.