Monday, March 15, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: March 25, 9:37 PM UK
Without additions, Red Bulls risk falling flat
2009 record and finish: 5-19-6, seventh in East, missed playoffs.
Juan Pablo Angel hopes the new-look Red Bulls can return to the playoffs. (Greg Bartram/GettyImages)
Key additions: D Chris Albright, D Roy Miller, M Tony Tchani, M Joel Lindpere
Key losses: GK Danny Cepero, D Carlos Johnson, D Walter Garcia, M Matthew Mbuta, M Albert Celades
1. Can the new stadium save this franchise?
When the Red Bulls took over the MetroStars and rebranded the team in 2006, this was the season the franchise was working toward. With a beautiful new stadium in Harrison, N.J., set for its MLS debut on March 27, the time is now for New York to finally begin to live up to expectations. Last year, the Red Bulls had the fourth-worst attendance in the league: nearly 3,500 fans below the league average, despite being in the most populated metropolitan area in the country. There is precious little buzz about the team outside of its most hard-core fans, and MLS history has shown that a new stadium stops being a draw if the team on the field doesn't perform.
Making matters worse, the Red Bulls had the worst record in the league last year, missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2002. One year removed from a magical run at the MLS Cup, the team alienated fans with horrid play during the middle of the MLS season en route to its worst regular-season mark since a 7-25 finish in 1999. Plus, the Red Bulls' rebranding effort has alienated a number of die-hard fans, making the opening of the new stadium a pivotal moment in the franchise's development.
Located in the epicenter of soccer culture in North Jersey and just minutes from mass transportation for New York fans, the team has no excuse for failing to make strides off the field. Whether a team coming off one of the worst seasons in league history can give those fans a reason to show up remains to be seen.
2. Can another management change finally make an impact?
When Juan Carlos Osorio was fired with eight games left last season, the team responded under interim head coach Richie Williams by going 3-2-3 and salvaging some respect. Despite proving that he is capable of coaching in the league, Williams was brought back with the team only as an assistant. A pair of Europeans -- sporting director Erik Soler and head coach Hans Backe -- was hired to right the ship.
Backe is the 12th coach since 1996 for a franchise widely known for its instability. Another rebuilding project now falls to two individuals with little knowledge of the league or its intricacies. Soler and Backe have said all the right things, sparking optimism among Red Bulls fans that this just might be the brain trust needed to stock and refine the roster of a team that has always struggled to discover MLS-caliber talent.
Then again, fans initially felt this way about Osorio and predecessors such as Bruce Arena and Mo Johnston. Although fans are excited by the new management pieces and their decades of experience at high levels of European soccer, there are too many Peter Canero, Juan Pietravallo, Jorge Rojas, Pedro Alvarez and Daniel Garipe signings in this franchise's past to keep even the stalwarts from being a little hesitant.
3. Holes, holes everywhere ...
It isn't surprising that a team that finished in last place in 2009 might have to make a change or two, but there are precious few reliable pieces that the Red Bulls can count on to give them wings this season.
Colombian international Juan Pablo Angel is the face of the franchise and unquestionably the team's star, with Angel's heaven-sent displays in front of goal being the lone saving grace during a hellish 2009 season. The midfield, outside of Jeremy Hall on the left wing and Dane Richards on the right, appears a bit muddled. The back line is even worse: MLS veteran Chris Albright continues to regain fitness following an injury, and there are no big-name players among the candidates to fill out the back four. Bouna Coundoul in goal can be among the best in the league, but he is capable of some surprising gaffes. It might be a very long season if the Red Bulls can't score goals this year, because the defense has more question marks than a congressional inquiry.
Despite all the talk about Thierry Henry or Raul joining the franchise after the World Cup, the Red Bulls really just need a calming presence in the midfield who can hold possession and distribute the ball. A savvy center back -- the team is rumored to have inquired about Kansas City and national-team defender Jimmy Conrad and Houston's rising center back, Geoff Cameron -- is a must for this team to make it to the playoffs. Whether that player can be found on the transfer market or within MLS, a lockdown center back is sorely needed.
Biggest X factor: Joel Lindpere
Although in the prime of his career, the 28-year-old Estonian international is not the big-name midfielder Red Bulls fans were craving this offseason. Still, club management is confident Lindpere will enhance New York's midfield.
If he can control the tempo of the game and deliver quality balls to Angel and Mac Kandji up top, the offense should be a lot more efficient in 2010. Last year, the team predictably went wide to Richards or over the top and down the middle, hampering any offensive flow. Lindpere has speed on the wings and two goal scorers up top to utilize; the question is how effective he can be in delivering the ball.
Whether the team adds another midfielder to complement Lindpere remains to be seen, but his pedigree -- despite being under 30, he has 74 international appearances and nearly 13 years of European club experience -- should help a team that is very much in flux.
Breakout player to watch: Mac Kandji
A late addition to the Red Bulls in 2008, poor Kandji had a roller-coaster second season in the league. With four goals and five assists last year, Kandji showed ease and comfort on the ball, with a creative flair that was lacking on a plebeian team. He struggled with some injuries and lacked strike partner Angel, who had his own knocks and bruises, during portions of the summer. It didn't help matters that Osorio played Kandji in a variety of positions, never letting the lanky attacker find a groove.
He's not a winger or a central midfielder -- Kandji is most effective playing up top and working off Angel. He needs to harness his desire to dribble, and his over-creating last year stalled the Red Bulls' offense on more than one occasion. Kandji has as much talent as any young attacker in the league and boasts good size that lets him shed defenders with ease. He can easily be a golden boot contender if his development continues and he finishes better. Angel hasn't had a true complementary teammate since Jozy Altidore bolted for Spain in 2008. If Kandji and Angel click, they can mask a multitude of sins for a rather ordinary team.
There are no more excuses for this club. No plastic pitch at Giants Stadium to blame, no third-rate-tenant status to decry. As a true home-field advantage emerges, Red Bulls management must step up and invest shrewdly on and off the field to fill the beautiful new Harrison stadium. New York has the resources and muscle to do so -- after all, every can of Red Bull purchased helps fund this team. But the time is now for the Red Bulls to step up and produce, or risk permanently being irrelevant in this crowded sports market.
The play on the field might be overshadowed by the Thierry Henry watch, and perhaps this isn't a bad thing as Soler and Backe continue to shape the team to their liking. Will the former Arsenal forward leave Barcelona for MLS? If the Red Bulls can't find a true playmaker in the midfield, then even an Angel-Henry partnership would be ineffective.
There are too many question marks surrounding this team to consider it anything but average at best, but the Red Bulls can be at least that if they act shrewdly and wisely: find that true playmaker, add a center back and hope that Albright can return to good health. Until that happens, the Red Bulls might be more fizz than pop.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com .