He brought calm to a franchise with a history of chaos, leadership to a team trying to find its way and professionalism to a group of players that badly needed it. Looking back, it’s pretty clear just how much Juan Pablo Angel meant to the Red Bulls.
And the team and its loyal fans have not forgotten. On Sunday night, Angel returned to Red Bulls Arena to be honored as one of its 20 best players in the franchise’s 20-year history, and the crowd of 20,062 gave him a huge ovation prior to the Red Bulls’ 1-1 tie with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“It’s emotional for me and I’m thankful,” Angel said. “It’s everything, seeing a lot of people that still work for the club who worked when I was here. All my friends, the memories. I’m delighted to be back. It feels like home.
“I retired about three months ago and I miss the game. I really miss it. Although I am at peace with the decision that I made I miss the everyday stuff, the games on the weekend, the rush and the adrenaline to the buildup of the game. I miss that. Now, back here in this beautiful arena, I miss that.”
Angel only played one season in Red Bull Arena after excelling for years on the brutal artificial turf at Giants Stadium. And he never got to practice on the pristine fields at the Red Bulls training facility. When he arrived in 2007 MLS was a different world, certainly different from the English Premier League, where he played for Aston Villa.
“I remember at Montclair University, changing on the stairs on what was going to be our training facility,” Angel recalled. “I was not prepared for that. You saw that the setup wasn’t the best. They didn’t even have the (practice) field down. It wasn’t good. We didn’t have showers, and for a few weeks we were changing outside. Then the next preseason, it was one of those tough winters, and so many days we didn’t even have a place to train. I wanted to work hard and try and forget about the things I didn’t like and just do my best.”
That was the attitude Angel brought and it became infectious. The Red Bulls made the playoffs his first year and reached MLS Cup in 2008, losing to the Columbus Crew, 3-1. Angel set a franchise record with 19 goals his first year, a figure that was surpassed by Bradley Wright-Phillips last season when he scored 27. Angel still holds the franchise record for career goals with 58.
“A lot of things have changed since I left, and you can tell there is a plan right now,” Angel said. “There’s a structure in place and there’s people that have the ability to execute it. In this sport anything can happen, but I’m glad to see there is a structure and a plan. … You need to have organization and you need to have good communication with the players, and there’s a good chance the results will work.”
Angel was released following the 2010 season, a move that was not greeted well by the fans. He was picked up by the Galaxy in Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft. He played one year with the Galaxy and was traded to Chivas USA, but that was a bad situation as the club was having issues with ownership, which eventually led to Chivas being bought by MLS and disbanded.
“It definitely wasn’t the best scenario. I kind of knew it was going to happen,” Angel said about his release from the Red Bulls. “You can tell, you can sense it. One of the things that I understood very early in my career is the nature of this industry. You might not like it but that’s the way it is and you have to deal with it. Eventually it will happen to everybody in sports.
“It wasn’t what I was expecting, especially after all the things we went through in those first few years, and when things start to come together obviously you want to have a chance to be a piece of what they are building. I always knew it was just going to be temporary, and at the end of the day you knew that the people that have been in this club forever appreciated what I did. It was important and I guess that’s why I’m here right now because they recognized what I did.”
Angel finished his career with the club he began with, Atletico Nacional, in his home country of Colombia, where he played for one of his former Red Bulls coaches, Juan Carlos Osorio.
“I didn’t want to finish off my career with the last memory that I had with Chivas, although I knew that it was a big gamble for me because it’s not good to touch something that is already written,” Angel said. “I had a history with the club, and it was a good history, and I was afraid it wasn’t going to work out. Fortunately, I went back and we ended up winning five championships and it was one of the best moves of my career right to the end. I managed to change the memories of Chivas USA to these memories.”
Angel suffered a number of concussions while playing in MLS but says he hasn’t had another since his Galaxy days and is feeling great. As he enters retirement, could a reunion with the Red Bulls be in his future?
“Everyone knows my feelings about this franchise, but you have to do it step by step and eventually when the time is right and the opportunity comes you will think about it differently,” Angel said about the details that led to his return Sunday night. “I never hold any grudges. I knew that was the nature of the business. I didn’t like it, that’s for sure, but you just keep doing what you have to do and eventually things come back to where they were.