By Ridge Mahoney
It might seem strange for a coach-less team to shake up its roster drastically but in Red Bull Land, nothing is unusual.
With Fabian Espindola added to the attack and Jamison Olave inserted into the back line, Sebastian Le Toux traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Josue Martinez, and Kosuke Kimura penciled in at right back, the leading question must be:
What’s the future hold for Connor Lade?
No, really. Big stars and Designated Players come and go, but an MLS team sinks or swims on how players like Lade perform. And amid all the major moves, New York has tended to a few of the role players on which it and every other MLS team must depend. Lade looks like a real player, which is more than can be said for a few of 2012 teammates.
The departure of former head coach Hans Backe and sporting director Erik Soler signaled a sharp change in direction, and subsequent moves involving more than a dozen players should be sufficient confirmation. Coach or no, there’s a plan in place. What comes next is pretty murky; supposedly, there’s ongoing contact with former Red Bull forward Luke Rodgers, who after playing in 2011 was denied renewal of the work visa he needed to return. Contact has been made with Brazilian midfielder Juninho Pernambucano, so stay tuned.
Lade has signed a new contract and is headed to Spanish club Sevilla this month for a training stint. He’s a candidate, obviously, to replace holding midfielder Teemu Tainio, one of 10 players cut loose by the Red Bulls Nov. 19. New York could also shift Dax McCarty to the holding role, though he finished the season at right mid and certainly did a better job in that spot than another of the departees, Jan Gunnar Solli, who faltered badly in the last two months of the season.
Of the pieces added so far, they can be assessed thusly:
Espindola, 27, took much of the blame for RSL’s 1-0 loss to Monterrey in the second leg of the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League finals. Coach Victor Manuel Vucetich deployed his defense to clamp down on Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales, betting that the Argentine forward’s streaky scoring form and emotional swings would not stand up to the pressure. The gamble paid off; Espindola’s shots slid wide or otherwise failed to threaten as RSL’s 37-game home unbeaten streak went up in smoke.
There’s no question he’s a handful who can burst through the channels and test keepers with either foot or his head. He gives New York a much different look than the more polished and sophisticated Le Toux, and can open up a lot of space whether paired with a forward or sent wide as a winger. He’s among the culprits who didn’t produce for RSL in big games, but with a fresh start on an ambitious team in a major market could flourish.
Olave has been a mainstay of RSL’s resilient defense since his arrival in 2008 and was MLS Defender of the Year two seasons ago. He defines the centerback described as “a beast.” He’ll be 32 next season, so age shouldn’t be an issue, and has enough quality that Argentine power River Plate inquired about him a while back. He takes a slot vacated by journeyman Stephen Keel, one of the 10 players cut loose.
If Olave starts alongside Markus Holgersson, named as the club’s Defender of the Year, how quickly he and the Swede adapt to each other will indicate what kind of season the Red Bulls can expect. If Rafael Marquez returns, well, who knows?
Kimura, 28, the first Japanese-born player to sign an MLS contract, came out of Western Illinois five years ago and played an important role as the upstart Rapids won the 2010 MLS Cup. Since then, he’s been shuttled to Portland and now New York, and though he’s limited technically, there’s no shortage of energy and determination, and he’s not a bad crosser. He seldom seemed comfortable on the JELD-WEN artificial surface during a season of upheaval and may find the real grass of Red Bull Arena more to his liking.
Along with Lade, New York also signed a new deal with Brandon Barklage, who also spent some time at right back. Like Lade, he can play midfield but he’s not yet shown a tremendous upside. If he starts as many games, 16, in 2013 as he did this past season, the New York upgrade will have been more modest than at first thought, no matter who the coach is.