UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. — What to do with a player who has been the face of a franchise over the better part of four years but whose production has dropped slightly this season?
For the Red Bulls, the answer seems to be to let that player walk, but cutting ties with team captain Juan Pablo Angel, who celebrated his 35th birthday in late October, is a mixed proposition.
The Red Bulls finished the regular season atop the East before crashing out of the conference semifinals. Ángel carried the team during much of the early run of the season, notching 13 goals in league play — good enough to place him in the top five scorers in MLS this season.
Last week, in the 3-1 playoff loss to San Jose that ended the Red Bulls 2010 campaign, Ángel scored New York's lone goal in the 80th minute.
[inline_node:320860]In short: With just four short seasons in New York to his name, the Colombian is a Red Bulls legend.
But head coach Hans Backe, a man who has done precious little wrong this season in terms of tactics and personnel, doesn’t fancy Ángel beyond this season.
Having acquired Thierry Henry midseason, Backe is looking to add a speedy complement to the former Barcelona striker. Though Ángel is many things — a terrific passer, a good holder of the ball and a striker with a nose for goal — he is not speedy.
Furthermore, his numbers have slipped. Say what you will about the obvious distractions of midseason contract talk, Ángel's scoring petered out this year. He scored just four regular-season goals after July 4 — a stretch of 16 league games that encompasses more than half the season — and prior to Thursday, he scored just once since mid-August when he slotted home a penalty kick in a 2-0 win over Los Angeles.
Only two of those four goals came from the run of play, which draws into question the value of a player who earns a Designated Player salary.
So, are Backe and Red Bulls sporting director Erik Solér correct in thinking that Ángel’s time with this club has passed?
Amid what could be a messy breakup, the Red Bulls remain remarkably tight-lipped about their intentions for the player next year. Rumors have surfaced, though, that the club allowed Ángel, who will be a free agent at the conclusion of this season, to pursue other options this past summer.
With ample warning, Ángel has been given the opportunity to pursue another MLS contract — or perhaps a return to River Plate, where he made his name as a young striker.
Even given his recent form, nothing will ever take away from his accomplishments. However, he has become the victim of a bigger name in Henry and a clash of playing styles with Backe.
Backe and Solér have an impressive record of success. They have earned the right to bring in their type of players, especially given the remarkable worst-to-first turnaround the duo orchestrated this season.
Every New York supporter wants to see Ángel retire wearing the white and red, but it appears that won’t happen. However, if Ángel’s replacement helps New York win more games next year, his move out will hurt far less.
Besides, Ángel will be a New York legend forever.
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012