[MLS] Midfielder Joel Lindpere, a native of Estonia with a very limited playing resume, has established himself as a vital component in the New York Red Bulls’ revival.
Clutching a cup of coffee and wearing a slightly nervous smile, midfielder Joel Lindpere met the press the day before New York’s conference semifinal, first leg against San Jose last week.
He didn’t hesitate when asked about the strangest aspect of playing professionally in America, a world away from his hometown of Tallinn (population 400,000). “This playoff system is definitely the most interesting and maybe the most dangerous thing,” says Lindpere, getting right to the gist despite a halting command of English.
“It is dangerous because in my league you can play 30 or 40 games and you do really good and that is the season, first place or second place or third place. Here you can make one bad game in the playoffs and you are out.”
In a season of redemption for perhaps the league’s champion of underachievement, the spotlight has shone on an array of international players, from Thierry Henry of France to Rafa Marquez of Mexico to Roy Miller of Costa Rica to Dane Richards of Jamaica to Juan Pablo Angel of Colombia. Those are nations well known to the coaches and players and fans of MLS.
Estonia? Not so much. That’s a country – tucked away in Northern Europe on the Gulf of Finland -- for which you can play more than 70 times and not make much of a ripple on the international soccer waters. But Red Bulls coaches and players have known since the early days of preseason training why Coach Hans Backe deemed the 5-foot-10, 160-pounder desirable.
“I think the best thing about Joel is he’s very consistent,” says assistant coach Richie Williams of Lindpere, who notched three goals and six assists in 29 league games and scored the only goal Saturday in the Red Bulls’ 1-0 playoff win. “He shows up for every game and he might not be outstanding but he does everything well.
“He works hard, he’s good with the ball, he gets forward, and when he gets forward he has the ability to shoot and cross. He gets back on defense and is able to tackle. He’s kind of a no-nonsense guy who’s out there just trying to do his job the right way and win and be competitive. He’s been great.”
But that’s not the whole story. Lindpere enjoys being one of the boys. Perhaps that grin is more sly than shy?
“He’s a good guy in the locker room, too, an interesting cat,” laughs right back Chris Albright. “He’s like the wild and crazy guys from Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd, the Estonian version. Maybe that’s a stereotype. I’ve never met anyone from Estonia, never mind a very good soccer player, so that might not be fair.”
Prior to the arrival of Marquez in August, Lindpere manned the middle, clogging up opponents’ attacks yet also funneling balls up to Angel or Richards and occasionally getting forward far enough to take a crack at goal himself. He scored the first goal at Red Bull Arena, in the inaugural game against Santos, and netted again a week later in the season opener against Chicago.
His playing experience outside Estonia is limited – he played for CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria and Tromso in Norway, and had gone on trial with a couple of Russian clubs when the Red Bulls called – yet adapting to MLS has not been a hardship. “The soccer here, the football, we have many technical players and most of them are from South America,” he says. “In the league we also need players to complement them and to give the teams something different.
“I’ve been playing so many games like UEFA Cup and Champions League and the national team. It’s kind of similar to me, to compare South American to countries like Slovenia. I know what they are able to do and the weaknesses and strong points and everything, so it’s not a difficult thing for me.”
When Marquez took up his central midfield role, Lindpere shifted to the left side, forming a three-man line in front of Marquez with Tony Tchani in the middle and Richards on the right. Backe has subsequently altered his formation in the wake of injuries to Henry and Tchani and the acquisition of Mehdi Ballouchy, but there’s always a spot for Lindpere.
“He can play wide and [against New England in the season finale Oct. 21] when he played centrally we get much more dynamic with him in central midfield because of his work ethic,” says Backe. “He goes box-to-box, he can finish, he’s a good defender and he’s a very complete player.”
His value to the Red Bulls is reflected in the team’s record (15-9-6) and his inclusion among the Newcomer of the Year finalists, along with Henry and RSL’s leading scorer Alvaro Saborio. “I agree with that,” says Backe of Lindpere’s ranking. “I saw Joel in Norway and Bulgaria some games, and he was a decent player.
“Not the one who was spectacular or anything, but if you look at these 30 games he’s been phenomenal with his workrate, and his understanding of the game. He’s scored some vital goals. He’s one of the absolutely best newcomers in this league.”
His strong, steady play at the start of the season helped New York win five of its first six games, which Backe believes essentially paved a path for this season’s remarkable turnaround from last year’s five-win disaster. “The team had a very rough season, the last one, and I think we started the season in March with eight or nine [players] from last season, so I think the key was getting some early results out of the first six games,” said Backe. “That was the turning point, definitely.”
The move to MLS might be a turning point for Lindpere. He admits he aspires to play in one of Europe’s bigger leagues. Estonia, which regained its independence in 1991 after more than five decades of external rule, joined the European Union in 2004, so he would count as an EU player.
“I didn’t have any big leagues after me, not something concrete, so I had this opportunity and was going to take it,” he says. “I’m still capable to play someplace higher maybe, so this season and maybe other seasons will be a good base for me to still prove myself.
“Some people think MLS is a place players come here to retire but not for me.”