The Tweet and Lowdown:
After a wholly forgettable 2009 season, the New York Red Bulls have nowhere to go but up in 2010. How much can a new stadium help?
Setting the Scene:
Any momentum the Red Bulls may have picked up during their unlikely late sprint to the 2008 MLS Cup was, by 2009, as shredded as New York’s backline was that sunny afternoon in Carson. Last season the seemingly cursed team descended to new depths of mediocrity by posting a franchise-record 19 losses. They suffered a 16-match winless streak. Star striker Juan Pablo Angel never found a partner in the attack and finished with 12 goals, his lowest total since arriving in 2007. And the defense, well, let’s just say it never found its footing. In short, it was a year that all parties involved would rather forget.
The off-season brought about nearly wholesale changes. Former Norwegian international Erik Solér was brought in as general manager/sporting director, and he quickly hired veteran Swedish manager Hans Backe. Not party to last year’s shortcomings, the Scandinavian duo has nonetheless set about erasing almost any vestige of former coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s imprint. Osorio’s Latin American core has been replaced with a mix of Scandinavian league veterans and young, American college products. Backe has also scrapped the complex, ever-changing tactics of the Osorio-era in favor of an emphasis on fitness and fundamentally simpler play.
The Solér-Backe revolution has indications of eventually proving successful. But with the much-hyped Red Bull Arena opening this season, New York has 25,000 reasons to show something right away.
Players in: Joel Lindpere (Tromso IL), Chris Albright (New England), Roy Miller (Rosenberg), Carl Robinson (Toronto FC), Tony Tchani (Virigina), Austin de Luz (Wake Forest), Tim Ream (St. Louis University)
Players out: Carlos Johnson (Once Caldas), Alfredo Pacheco (FAS), Jorge Rojas (Deportivo Táchira), Oscar Echeverry (unattached), Juan Pietravallo (Olhanense), Danny Cepero (unattached), Matthew Mbuta (Crystal Palace Baltimore), Alberto Celades (Kitchee Hong Kong)
Technical Staff: Erik Soler (GM), Hans Backe (head coach), Goran Aral (assistant coach)
Star Attraction: Juan Pablo Angel
There is no question who the biggest bull in the New York herd is. Since arriving from Aston Villa, the former Colombian international has been the club’s marquee name. And for good reason: Despite lacking a reliable supporting cast, JPA has claimed an astonishing 45 goals in 72 matches during his three years in New York. With the planned addition of another offensive-minded Designated Player in the summer, things look to get even better for Angel and those who enjoy watching him score.
Unsung Hero: Seth Stammler
Every team needs a utility man who is willing to do the dirty work week in, week out, and in New York that guy is Seth Stammler. Not only has he adapted well to playing the role of midfield destroyer, but over the last six seasons he has put in time at every position on the field, save for striker and keeper. And with so many holes in the roster that need filling this year, Stammler’s versatility will almost certainly be called into service.
Ready for Primetime: Jeremy Hall
After a rookie season of position in the back and on the wrong side of the field—and still making a name for himself—the natural left midfielder looks ready to pick things up a notch in 2010. With the left being a virtual dead-zone for the Red Bulls since the departure of Dave van den Burgh, Hall’s speed and penchant for well-placed passes could prove a boon to the club’s desperate for service forwards.
Storylines to Watch:
If the persistent rumors of a world-class striker -- Thierry Henry or Raul, perhaps -- arriving this summer come true, the Red Bulls will possess one of the league’s premier strike forces. But they are still desperately in need of a defensive makeover. Costa Rican newcomer Roy Miller and recently acquired holding midfielder Carl Robinson should help, but age (Mike Petke) and injury concerns (Albright) could negatively counterbalance that.
As for the situation between the sticks, the dismissal of former hero Danny Cepero was a mild shock, but it didn’t clear up the picture. Is it really “Bouna Time”? Or will Canadian international Greg Sutton assert himself? Expect yet another season of musical goalies in New York similar to 2009.
Success ultimately may come down to how the club’s bumper crop of rookies adjusts to the pro level. Is overall No. 2 draft pick Tony Tchani quite ready to contribute regularly? Probably not, but he should force himself into the central midfield picture by midseason. Austin de Luz, Tim Ream and Conor Chin have put in impressive preseason performances, with the crafty and steady de Luz looking set to contribute right away.
What He Said:
“Joel is an experienced midfielder who can play in many different positions. We have watched him play for a long period of time and we are confident that he will be able to adjust to the MLS game.”
—Erik Soler on recently acquired Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere.
If everything goes right:
With a new star player on the horizon, a new coaching philosophy and a new stadium, 2010 could prove to be an exciting year for the Red Bulls. But let’s not get carried away with optimism. Although the win-filled preseason hints at an improved team, contending for any hardware and exorcising all of last season’s demons is too much to ask. There will be improvement, no doubt, but don’t expect the Red Bulls to charge back to the MLS Cup final.