The Red Bulls proved this season that despite the constraints of MLS, with a sharp coach and the right changes in personnel a team burdened by a terrible record -- as in five wins last year -- can be converted into a winner.
With Coach Hans Backe and a fleet of new players, New York won the Eastern Conference with a 15-9-6 record, cut down its goals allowed from 47 last year to 29 in 2010, and went full-bore on the new Designated Player rules by adding Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez to its acquisition of Juan Pablo Angel three seasons ago.
The long-held belief that a glamorous, successful team in its biggest market would elevate the league’s stature had been given a test case. Average crowds of 18,441 came out to Red Bull Arena, a gleaming masterpiece that stands as a symbol of the club’s ambitions.
Still, New York ventured beyond big names and a shiny new facility. Estonian international midfielder Joel Lindpere turned out to be one of the league’s best acquisitions. Teenager Juan Agudelo emerged as an exciting young talent at the end of the season and the Red Bull coaching staff groomed rookies Tim Ream and Tony Tchani into key contributors.
Since Erik Soler was hired as general manager a year ago, he’s overseen a remarkable transformation. The club is no longer a joke, it’s a team with goals and objectives, a training complex nearly completed, and a healthy environment.
“You hope that younger guys like Tony and Timmy see what Joel does every day and kind of do the same thing and follow along to be successful,” says assistant coach Richie Williams, a survivor of several coaching changes in New York the past few seasons. “He’s helpful with the younger guys just like the older guys are, too. Tchani has improved over the season, for sure.”
The Red Bulls also proved how fragile such a quick success in the “dangerous” playoffs, to use the term coined by Lindpere, who also said, “Overall, we can see that many good players, many famous players even, have come here to play. I can say it’s not easy here, even for them to do a good job.
“The league is tough and it’s equal and all the teams can beat everybody here. Maybe there are some teams in front of the others but whenever any of the teams go on the field with at even 90 percent instead of 100 it’s still very easy to lose.”
And lose the Red Bulls did a week ago to end their revivalist season in a cloud of confusion. After playing a strong game in the conference semifinals, first leg to beat San Jose, 1-0, on the road, they took the field for the home leg and stumbled out of playoffs via a 3-1 loss and 3-2 aggregate scoreline. A few missed chances by the Red Bulls, a great game (two goals, one assist) by Bobby Convey, and 10 months of hard work went down the drain.
For one of the few times this season the Red Bulls didn’t match their foes’ intensity despite an edge in possession and shots. Convey schooled Ream on the Quakes’ second goal, and at critical moments the Red Bulls were a step slow of mind and foot. The defeat took some luster off a fine season; looking ahead, there’s a potent core of players with a few holes that need filling.
Reinforcements are needed up front. Veteran forward John Wolyniec, who played eight of his 16 MLS seasons with the MetroStars/Red Bulls, retired during the season and Angel, whose header in the second leg briefly tied the aggregate at 2-2, is already seeking a new employer. The health of Henry, who played just 11 games, is a concern.
Marquez dominated play in some of his appearances and with a period of rest and a proper preseason should emerge of one of the league’s elite players. Late-season acquisition Mehdi Ballouchy is a thrilling talent yet needs to prove he can crack this team’s starting lineup. Lindpere is better in the middle but might again be pushed left in deference to Marquez. On the right side, Dane Richards progressed in his efforts to meld savvy with incredible speed.
Keeper Bouna Coundoul eradicated much of his erratic play and there’s a bit of age to be reckoned with, aside from Ream, on that revamped back line. A proper contract is essential for right back Chris Albright, who regained strength and confidence to play 18 games after severe knee problems limited him to just one game last season for New England.
Finally it appears there’s hope, rather than hopelessness, in New Jersey.
“We are rather close to being one of the top five, six teams in this league,” Backe told mlssoccer.com. “I still think we can lift the team fitness-wise. Then, it’s all about getting the right players in at different positions. I think we can succeed with that and get some balance in this team.
“I’m quite sure that we will be stronger next season. [I am] absolutely sure when we’ve got a new preseason, some new players—quality players—I think we will be very hard to beat."