By Ridge Mahoney
Thanks to the generosity of other teams, both foreign and domestic, the Red Bulls are remade once again.
Yes, the long-running soap opera with Rafael Marquez as the central character packed up for a revival in Mexico, yet a fleet of other regulars also left town. Hans Backe’s three-year run as head coach ended with another disappointing playoff exit -– a 2-1 aggregate loss to D.C. United in an Eastern Conference semifinal series flipped upside down when Hurricane Sandy dumped feet of snow on northern New Jersey -– that only expedited the inevitable.
Comedy replaced melodrama as Scotsman Gary McAlister and Portuguese Paulo Sousa fell out of contention for various reasons and finally, sporting director Andy Roxburgh closed the circle by hiring assistant coach Mike Petke. One of the team's most popular players, the ex-defender at least gives the Red Bulls the fire and commitment of seven seasons (five as a MetroStar) he donated to the franchise.
Counting his years in the jerseys of D.C. United and Colorado, he embarks as a head coach with 13 seasons on the field and two more on the bench. He’s known hundreds of players with varying backgrounds and abilities. How that translates into massaging the psyches and deploying the talents of Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and newcomer Juninho Pernambucano, while squeezing the best out of an enigma like Fabian Espindola, will define how well this risky Red Bulls’ move pays off.
Cahill, for example, jumped into the Landon Donovan discussion by saying he understands the burdens of his former Everton teammate, and that he should just heft that weight and carry on. There’s nothing wrong with Cahill speaking his mind, but his comments are a good example of what it’s like in Red Bull Land; remember, former general manager Eric Soler was fired in early October and replaced by Jerome de Bontin at the behest of Gerard Houllier, who had been hired as Head of Global Soccer in July. Former Scotland coach Roxburgh came aboard in November as sporting director and conducted the stuttering search that led to Petke.
In a preseason visit to Arizona, the Red Bulls lost three games to MLS opposition, including one played in a snowstorm. Home or away, weird stuff happens, but those results are worrying even though they’d been unbeaten prior to heading west.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. It’s a long list of those who departed along with Marquez: Teemu Taino, Jan Gunnar Solli, Sebastian Le Toux, Kenny Cooper, Joel Lindpere, Wilman Conde, Victor Palsson, and others. All but Conde and Cooper were jettisoned before Petke officially came aboard, as were the deals that netted right back Kosuke Kimura, Juninho, and forward Josue Martinez as well as Jamison Olave and Espindola. Since taking the helm, Petke has acquired midfielders Eric Alexander (ex-Portland) and Johnny Steele (Real Salt Lake). He also green-lighted the signing of Ruben Izqueirdo, a 20-year-old Spaniard who came through the development program at Mallorca and has played in the lower English divisions.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Henry is one of the league’s elite players, Cahill figures to excel after getting to know the league as a late-season arrival in 2012, and there’s a lot of experience in Juninho, Espindola, and Olave. If Juninho, 38, can handle the physical pounding, he can get balls to Henry in the right spots. Midfielder Dax McCarty proved last year he could glue together just about any mix of formations and personnel, not to mention personalities, most of the time. Connor Lade gave several impressive rookie performances and seems to have great room for future growth.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? It’s the Red Bulls, stupid. No team has gone through this extensive an overhaul in one offseason, and for all his devotion and energy it’s a radically new day for Petke. This is a brutally tough assignment to learn on the job. There has to be more stability and cohesive defending from a team that conceded 46 goals last year, second-most among the 10 playoff teams.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Marquez’s meltdowns provided a morbid appeal to complement the still-amazing talents of Henry; this season, Juninho will be closely scrutinized as will Espindola’s success in meshing with his teammates. Henry was the only player in the league last year to hit double-digits in goals and assists. He’s reason enough.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | Houston | Montreal |New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Seattle | Vancouver | Real Salt Lake