HARRISON, N.J. – The Red Bulls had quite a season, bringing in former Barcelona big guns Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez en route to claiming the top seed in the Eastern Conference before suffering a premature exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs. But perhaps head coach Hans Backe was right when he cautioned the fans and media at the midway point of the season that the goal was to build a foundation for 2011.
With the new season just a few months away, New York are expected to return to the training pitch come mid-January to prepare for a potential MLS Cup-caliber campaign. To get there, the club must check off five objectives in this offseason:
Find a No. 10
The Red Bulls’ defense was one of the league’s best and the offense has the lethal attacking options of Henry and Juan Agudelo, but the question mark heading into the offseason remains the creativity – or lack thereof – in the midfield.
With New York using two holding midfielders (Márquez and Tony Tchani) down the stretch, the team had good shape down its spine but didn’t have the ability to take the ball on the dribble into the final third.
Late-season acquisition Mehdi Ballouchy was supposed to be the missing link, but he was hampered by a foot injury towards the end and was sporadic at best. Perhaps Swedish international Jan Gunnar Solli – rumored to arrive in New York in January – is the answer.
[inline_node:322612]Find a partner in crime for Henry
If Henry is going to be effective, he’ll need a strike partner. The Red Bulls jettisoned the team’s all-time leading scorer, Juan Pablo Ángel, after the Colombian went through a serious scoring slump in the second half of the season.
Agudelo showed some spunk in New York’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against San Jose, and if Backe wants pace up top, the youngster could be Henry’s accomplice. The 18-year-old – whom Backe says could also play on the wing – showed his nose for goal when he scored in his US national team debut vs. South Africa last month, so it might be in the team’s best interest that he play up top.
Regardless, the Red Bulls need at least one other forward of starting quality added to the roster this offseason as the plodding Salou Ibrahim definitely isn’t the answer.
Get Henry healthy again
The most expensive signing in club history arrived midseason with plenty of hype, but the French star scored just twice in league play. Henry says the benefit of a true preseason will help his form and his ability to stay healthy after several injury struggles last season, but he must perform in 2011 or risk being tagged a bust.
[inline_node:321742]Beefing up the back line
Since the early part of the season, Backe HAS talked about strengthening central defense in 2011. Mike Petke, who holds New York’s record for most appearances, retired at season’s end. Though Carlos Mendes had a solid year, Backe might be looking for a bigger name.
The answer could already be on the squad in the form of Márquez, who has played center back for most of his club and country career and only recently shifted to the midfield. He’d bring composure to the back four and would be a wonderful partner alongside Tim Ream. Moving the Mexican from midfield to defense would also free up minutes for Tchani, who was impressive in central midfield during his rookie season.
No fullback left behind
In his first year in the league, Costa Rican international Roy Miller had a solid start to the season. He defended well, didn’t shy away from physical play and transitioned comfortably into the attack. Then, after a red card in late May during a 3-2 road loss to New England, Miller never seemed the same player.
By the end of the campaign, he was tentative to move forward and indecisive defensively, a weak link among the defenders. While Danleigh Borman improved by leaps and bounds this year and is serviceable as a left back, Backe would be wise to improve the team’s depth in that position.
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012.
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