HARRISON, N.J. – Last year, the Red Bulls began the season with something to prove.
In 2010, New York were seeking redemption after a disastrous 2009 campaign in which they finished bottom of the league with the worst record in MLS.
Now, as the 2011 season opener against the Seattle Sounders approaches, they begin the season with targets on their chests.
That’s what happens when you finish the regular season atop the Eastern Conference, have two of the league's highest-paid players on your roster and can boast the crown jewel of soccer stadiums.
Expectations — and dare it be said, the swagger — around this team have reached new heights in a single year.
“I feel a definite difference — much more confident this year,” head coach Hans Backe told MLSsoccer.com. “It is a different mentality for the club now that we’ve rebuilt after that tough year and had some success in the league. I think we have that confidence that maybe we didn’t have this time last year.”
[inline_node:330763]The Red Bulls have plenty of reasons to be confident. They head into the season as legitimate MLS Cup contenders for the first time since 2001. They have two marquee players in their starting XI in former Arsenal and Barcelona striker Thierry Henry and Mexican national team captain Rafa Márquez. Plus, they return most of their 2010 core while also adding European veterans Jan Gunnar Solli, Luke Rodgers and Teemu Tainio.
Clearly, there is room for optimism. But Danleigh Borman, now entering his fourth year with the club, says that optimism is different from arrogance.
“I think the attitude is the same as last year," Borman said. "We know we still have to work hard and can’t take anything for granted, even after the success of last year. We’re a little more confident. Last year, we had something to prove, but we still feel that way this year.”
It could be argued that 2010 may have been tougher on New York, given the weight of a new stadium on their shoulders plus the pressure of eradicating the bad taste from 2009. Expectations for on-the-field success last year were high, despite the poor finish the season prior.
"There was a lot of pressure on us last year, a lot," said assistant coach Mike Petke, who started last year as a Red Bulls player. "Coming off a season like ’09, having this stadium finally built, overhauling the team with new players – that is a lot of pressure. Before the opening of the stadium, the game against Santos, my mind was spinning like no other time I can remember.”
But now, a season of winning means that the Red Bulls can “no longer fly under the radar,” as defender Tim Ream put it.
“I think we’re going into this season more motivated with just as much to prove,” Borman said. “We can’t just slip past teams. Now we need to bring our best every game because we know the opposition will do the same in coming at us every week.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer