Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By DAVE MARTINEZ
The New York Red Bulls entered 2011 a clear contender for the MLS Cup, and it showed.
"We started very well," coach Hans Backe said. "Seven games, we were flying; perfect defense, attacking wise – very good. Then, in between for a couple of months, we didn’t pick up the results."
That is putting it mildly.
A dominating 4-1-2 record gave way to a 6-7-14 season that saw New York forfeit the U.S. Open Cup, go through two Designated Players, get decimated by injuries and international call-ups and have locker room tensions go public. The Red Bulls briefly breathed life back into their campaign before ultimately finishing off where they did the year before — ousted in the conference semifinals.
Months have passed allowing tensions to ease and roster issues to be addressed. Though reinforced and deeper than in years past, the Red Bulls are far from a finished product.
"We need to do changes," Backe said. "We definitely need to get more physical strength into the team. We need goals from central midfield; it has been zero. We need goals from centerbacks on set plays; it has been zero this year. We have conceded too many goals from set plays, unforced errors, individual mistakes. That's too much."
Here's a closer look at the Red Bulls ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
NEW YORK RED BULLS SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 10-8-16, 46 points (fifth in the Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: D/M Jonathan Borrajo, D Wilman Conde, F Kenny Cooper, D Markus Holgersson, D Connor Lade, GK Ryan Meara, M Victor Palsson, GK Jeremy Vuolo, F Jose Angulo, F Jhonny Arteaga
KEY LOSSES: D Chris Albright, M Stephane Auvray, GK Bouna Coundoul, D Carlos Mendes, D Tim Ream, GK Frank Rost
In restructuring the team for the 2012 campaign, New York bucked the trend of years past by keeping the majority of their starting XI intact. The team retained midfielder Joel Lindpere with a new contract, securing perhaps one of the most lethal wing combinations in the league alongside the speedy Dane Richards. Defensive bookends Roy Miller and Jan Gunnar Solli are back for another season to shore up a new-look backline. Teemu Tainio and Rafa Marquez will be sharing midfield responsibilities once again, while Thierry Henry leads the team from the front line.
With their core in place, the Red Bulls looked to bring in more physicality and depth. Tim Ream’s departure made room for Backe to model the Red Bulls backline into the physical unit he felt was imperative to succeed in MLS. To that end, Markus Holgersson and Wilman Conde were acquired, bringing added size and strength to the side. The towering duo will be expected to shore up the team’s leaky backline and set piece defending while adding needed size on corner kick situations (Red Bull defenders failed to score a single goal all of last season).
Of course, the signings are not without risk, particularly in the case of Conde. The former MLS Best Xi defender hasn’t played professional minutes in nearly a year after suffering an injury to his left foot that required surgery. He recently began his comeback, featuring in limited minutes this offseason. Nevertheless, he fell back on the injured list after picking up a thigh strain that will see him miss, at the very least, the season opener.
With Frank Rost’s retirement, New York has entrusted their fortunes in goal to rookie Ryan Meara and second year pro Jeremy Vuolo. Backe has said he will use the first month of the season to evaluate his keeper situation before he dips into the market for veteran options. For their part, both keepers have shown well during the preseason, but New York is certainly taking a risk entrusting its last line of defensive to a pair of unproven commodities.
The midfield has been reinforced by the addition of a feisty Victor Palsson. He and Dax McCarty will be fighting for minutes and filling in time between the Tainio/Maquez duo. Homegrown player Connor Lade, recently labeled a "sensation" by Backe, will add much needed depth and coverage on the left, while fellow Academy alumnus Jonathan Borrajo provides the same on the right.
Up top, New York has added size and skill in Kenny Cooper, who will join a crowded pool already featuring Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo and Corey Hertzog. Luke Rodgers' status remains in limbo while he awaits visa clearance, and he is perhaps the most needed striker on the team. Rodgers proved not only to be the perfect pair to the team captain, but also a catalyst for the team. In his 20 appearances last year, New York boasted a 9-4-7 record. Without him, they only achieved a single victory.
Yes, New York has done much to address their roster issues, and the club has acquired players who can very well shore up their starting needs, but many questions continue to surround this side as they face the coming campaign. Nevertheless, in the face of these uncertainties, Backe remains optimistic.
"I think we should have high expectations; it’s realistic, definitely," Backe said. "We have a roster definitely this year with a much better depth comparing to 2011."
Whether that depth translates to trophies remains to be seen.