By Paul Gardner
This simply doesn't seem possible. Yet, here we go again. How can the New Jersey Red Bulls (please, let's stop kidding ourselves with that "New York" tag), after yet another makeover, emerge as the same old Keystone Kops of soccer?
Somehow, they’ve managed it. The Red Bull performances this season have been decidedly business-as-usual, ranging from promising to ludicrous to downright pathetic.
We should have known. The warning signs were there throughout the offseason -- but of course, when you’re waiting for the promised land, when you fervently want things to improve, you tend to adopt an indulgent view of developments. In that glow, it was possible to gloss over the fact that the Red Bull player signings seemed to be all over the place, that it was virtually impossible to discern any logical team-building process at work.
Perhaps the key player, in that respect, was signed last year, before the current management took over. Throughout the 2012 preseason and on into the season itself there was incessant talk of the Red Bulls signing a third Designated Player, someone to play alongside the other two DPs, Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry, someone who would, it was assumed, make the Red Bulls more or less invincible.
Plenty of big names were hinted at -- Kaka was the most celebrated -- but none if them showed up. In the end, it was a name that was never mentioned who was signed. Tim Cahill.
The Cahill signing said it all. Cahill, an industrious, physical, all-action player from Everton, one of the more physical teams in the EPL. As it happens, the Red Bulls already had a player with those qualities in Dax McCarty -- and McCarty, your arch-typical college player, was not exactly setting the place alight. Looked at from the strictly team-building aspect, Cahill was the last type of player that the Red Bulls needed.
That would have been a creative midfielder -- a Kaka certainly -- someone to create purposeful cohesion where frantic chaos reigned. Adding Cahill to McCarty simply made no sense whatever -- it looked like an opportunistic signing, snapping up a well-known EPL player simply because he was suddenly cut loose by Everton.
The new Red Bull coaching crew did try to remedy the creative gap by bringing in Juninho ... but they failed to take the crucial step of getting rid of either McCarty or Cahill. One player like that is more than enough for any team -- two is simply inviting banality. Looking at the other recently acquired midfielders -- Jonathan Steele and Eric Alexander -- you’re going to find it difficult to understand just why they were signed.
Juninho has disappointed. His fearsome free kicks have yet to be seen. Sure, he covers a lot of ground, but this is hardly productive movement, it looks more like the futile wanderings of a player in search of a partner, looking for someone he can engage with, to fashion a midfield that can, consistently and skillfully, supply inviting passes forward for Henry and Fabian Espindola.
In this sense, Wednesday night’s game against Sporting Kansas City plumbed the depths. There seems little point in having highly paid and skillful players like Espindola and Henry on the team if they are to be isolated up front. Isolated on Wednesday night not so much by any outstanding defensive play from KC, but by the Red Bulls’ own midfield ineptitude.
Apart from Juninho, virtually all of the Red Bulls’ recent signings have that opportunistic aura about them, of players signed simply because they were available. Why Alexander? Why Steele? Ruben Bover? Not one of that trio has so far shown any signs of being a player of the caliber that a championship-chasing team should be signing. The same can be said of defender Brandon Barklage. And why Kosuke Kimura, an experienced MLS player who spends most of his time on the bench?
The current Red Bulls are not a team, and they show no evidence of having been put together with team-building in mind. Their episodes of good soccer -- and they have those, a few in every game -- come as a surprise, erupting suddenly from the drudgery of their routine play. They are singular moments, they are not heralds of the arrival of consistently mature and creative team play.
Just why the Bulls, and the MetroStars before them, have been so repeatedly awful at putting together a real team is a difficult one. After all, this is a problem for every MLS team. For this 2013 season, the frequency of roster changes in the league is staggering. The average number of new players for each club is eight. But Dominic Kinnear at Houston and Bruce Arena at the Galaxy and, to a lesser degree, Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake and Frank Yallop at San Jose have managed to mold teams that can be relied upon to play successful soccer with reasonable consistency. (I am not here concerned with the stylistic merits of the soccer played, that is another matter).
Why have the Red Bulls and their predecessors been so uniquely unable to produce a winning team? Quite possibly the nightmare is self-inflicted. Might it not be a consequence of the Red Bulls’ dogged insistence on being seen as a New York team? Which means, whether that’s what they want or not, they are going to be viewed as the inheritors of all that Cosmos glamour and dazzle, all those world superstars on the field, all those titles won.
The attempt -- be it conscious or unconscious -- to live up to that image may well have given the club ideas well beyond the station of a young team growing up in a small stadium in a small town in New Jersey. Growing up, too, within the protective shield of a league whose stern financial restraints flatly rule out the lavish spending that supported the Cosmos lifestyle.
Stretching and straining for the unattainable is a pretty good way of ensuring that the attainable is never achieved either.