By DAVE MARTINEZ
Though the New York Red Bulls were once considered clear-cut favorites to win the 2011 MLS Eastern Conference crown, the team imploded with a host of problems on the field, and in the locker room.
The defense became a porous mess that forced head coach Hans Backe to retool tactically in the final quarter of the season with a crude system he dubbed "cynical soccer" in order to stay competitive. Set-piece opportunities were a constant disappointment, highlighted by the fact that a diminutive Dane Richards proved more effective in corner conversions than some of his taller and more adept scoring partners.
The lack of depth forced the team's veteran starting XI to run their legs out on the pitch, making for a slower, more prodding product in the post season. And to make matters worse, the Rafa Marquez controversy divided a locker room already burdened by a strenuous season.
Needless to say, this tumultuous campaign left New York with plenty of questions to address as they headed into the offseason. Given the opportunity to retool and correct many of these glaring deficiencies, New York still looks incomplete seven weeks out from a new season.
Here is a peak at the Red Bulls' offseason, by the numbers:
6 – The number of players acquired this offseason, including Red Bulls Academy product Conor Lade, Jonathan Borrajo, MLS SuperDraft Pick Ryan Meara, Swedish big man Markus Holgersson, goalkeeper Jeremy Vuolo and former Timbers striker Kenny Cooper.
Of the group, Holgersson is perhaps the one signing that addresses an immediate need for the team. The 6-foot-3 Swedish centerback was an anchor for the Allsvenskan champion Helsingborgs IF, and his presence will add both physicality on the defensive end and size on corner kick opportunities.
With Tim Ream's imminent departure, New York will need to add more than one reliable starting centerback option. Currently, Holgersson’s pool of partners consist of journeyman, Stephen Keel and Academy product Sacir Hot, who has yet to compete in a regular season match.
Another key (and controversial) acquisition this offseason has been Cooper. A large, prodding striker, more adept to using his feet rather than his mass to find the back of the net, Cooper addresses the teams need for size at forward. However, his addition directly impacts the future of young American prospect Juan Agudelo, who stuggled to secure starting minutes with the team last season, and Luke Rodgers, who is once again having issues acquiring a work visa.
Recently, Coach Hans Backe revealed to the New York Post his hesitance to rely on either Rodgers or Agudelo for the coming season. "I don’t expect them to come back, because I know from last year and 2010 already with the visa problems for Luke, the rumors about Juan of course, today I can’t count on them. Hopefully we’ll have an answer in the next two weeks," Backe told the Post. "We would like to get replacements in if both Juan and Luke are out."
Their absence would instantly intensify the teams reliance on Cooper, who has struggled to find his true form after battling injuries over the past few seasons.
10 – The number of players released from the side, including spot starters Chris Albright and Bouna Coundoul, and a host of substitutes; most notably, defender Carlos Mendes and defensive midfielder Stephane Auvray.
13 – In response to this deficit in depth, the Red Bulls have called in 13 guest players to camp. Taking an objective look at the pool, it is a rather underwhelming bunch. The most experienced member of this select group, Tom Williams, 31, is a career journeyman who has featured for fourteen teams over thirteen years in the English football pyramid. Former Real Salt Lake defender Willis Forko, 28, has the most MLS experience of the group, and may find a spot simply due to the fact that New York has absolutely no one to cover Roy Miller on the leftback depth chart.
An intriguing pair of players competing for a spot with the team have some local appeal. USL Pro’s top goal scorer in 2011, Jhonny Arteaga, 25, is a forward who plied his trade with the expansion FC New York franchise. The Connecticut native became an instant fan favorite for the struggling franchise, finding the back of the net 13 times in 21 appearances.
Likewise, Jose Angulo is a legend of the St. Benedict soccer system who was once regarded as a can’t miss US prospect. After failing to latch on in Europe, he was forced into the lower tiers of the American soccer system, most recently featuring for Harrisburg of USL Pro.
650,000 – The amount of money New York can add towards their allocation funds thanks to the expected transfer of Tim Ream to the Bolton Wanderers. This can be the linch pin towards attracting starting level talent to the side. SBI reported New York's interest in Colombian defender Wilman Conde just last week, claiming the Red Bulls would be prepared to buy his rights from the Chicago Fire for an amount rumored to be in the six-digit range. Ream's sale would certainly go a long way in meeting that cost.
2 – The number of goalkeepers officially on the teams roster. Meara, the 31st pick from this year's MLS SuperDraft, was the only goalkeeper on the roster before the team signed the 24-year-old Vuolo, a Hartwick College and Syracuse University product who most recently featured in AC Oulu in Finland's second tier.
Even with these two options, that still leaves New York with …
0 – Starting goalkeepers. According to Backe, Frank Rost will not return to the team this season, leaving a huge gap in net with the season a little over six weeks away. The Swedish boss has a tendency to show deference towards veteran players, and this instance is no exception. "I think because we will get two young guys in, probably we will need some veteran," Backe explained. "It is a very, very important position so we are looking for an established one."
The rumor mill keeps churning up Venezuelan goalkeeper Renny Vega, who insists a move to New York is a distinct possibility, though his name has been shot down by both general manager Erik Soler and coach Backe repeatedly.
3 – The maximum amount of Designated Players an MLS side can have. New York currently houses two big-name DPs in Rafa Marquez and team captain Thierry Henry.
Marquez struggles have been well documented. After breaking his media silence this week, the Mexican legend revealed his intention to turn a new leaf with the Red Bulls. "I’m going to let my work speak for myself," Marquez said through an interpreter. "I shouldn’t be too worried about how the fans will welcome me in the first game. It’s up to me to show them how they should be welcoming me through my work and through my performances on the field."
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls made a calculated risk in loaning Thierry Henry to Arsenal. Though his debut with the Gunners led to a magical goal scoring moment against Leeds, he picked up a calf strain in training that forced the Red Bulls captain out of this weekends Manchester United clash. Only time will tell whether or not this move will help or hinder New York's season.
As for that third spot?
"We can be quite sure there will be no No. 10 to the start of the season," Backe revealed last week. "Perhaps to the summer. We have a couple of names and negotiations with those names but not quite sure it will be a final decision before the league starts. We have the possibility to have a third DP, but as it looks now, probably in the summer."
Do the Red Bulls have enough time to address their various needs? Are they taking the right steps towards contention this season? What do you make of their offseason?
Share your thoughts below.