By Ridge Mahoney
I'm going out on a limb right now to predict the Red Bulls won't be as bad with Coach Hans Backe in charge as they've been in the past.
As a notorious under-achiever in a monstrous market, New York has promised more and delivered less than any other MLS team. Players, coaches and executives have stood on podiums and pontificated of great things to come, only to scurry off after a year or two, if that, stung by failure and embarrassment.
So forlorn has this franchise been that sighs of relief emanated from RedBullville last August when a 1-0 victory over Columbus - a second win in a row! -- ensured it would finish with more points than the downtrodden Tampa Bay Mutiny, which compiled just 14 points (4-21-2) during the shortened 2001 season.
By beating Toronto on the final day of the 2009 season for their fifth victory, the Red Bulls topped the Mutiny and Chivas USA (also four wins) in its 2005 expansion season among the worst of the worst. There really isn't anywhere to go but up, but that's not why I predict there are not only better times ahead, but perhaps real success.
No, I've not been seduced by their blistering start to the preseason, rolling through the likes of feared Eastern European powers CSKA Moscow and Lech Poznan with a tie and a victory, respectively, in friendlies during their visit to Spain. Nor do I buy into the premise that Red Bull Park, as marvelous as it quite likely will be as an audience destination and sponsorship magnet, can automatically transform mediocrity into marvelous. Proof abounds in MLS, as per Colorado and Dallas in particular, that a stadium does not guarantee prosperity.
For the first time in its history, expectations are realistic. Rather than hire a veteran of many World Cups (Bora Milutinovic) or a man who has won one (Carlos Alberto Parreira, with Brazil of all teams), it has a proper coach in Backe, a Swede who by his own admission is used to making do with modest resources. Red Bull Arena will be magnificent, not modest, but amid parity and a salary cap Backe is more suited to success than most of his predecessors.
Assistant coaches Richie Williams and Des McAleenan should be able to steer him through the Byzantine world of MLS. The physical, robust style of play in Scandinavia is somewhat similar to MLS, though a long, hot summer and lengthy road trips will take some adjustment, as will the relative tactical naivety of the typical young American player and the Hispanic influence present on some rival teams.
Nothing definitive regarding wins and losses can be predicted from his calm, sensible demeanor at the SuperDraft, and Red Bull could improve significantly this season and still not make the playoffs.
An ambitious expansion team in Philadelphia increases the league's membership to 16 teams, only half of which can qualify for postseason play. Right now, New York still looks more like an absentee than a participant come next November. But as it proved in 2008, when it finished below .500 and still reached MLS Cup, it doesn't take all that much to get somewhere in this league.
With a long way to go, Red Bull seems pointed in the right direction. For this team, that's real progress.