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PREVIEW: Red Bulls anxious to rectify latest playoff flop
by Ridge Mahoney, March 6th, 2014 2:57PM
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[MLS 2014: Eastern Conference] After winning the first Supporters’ Shield in team history, the Red Bulls spent an offseason wondering what might have been.

Losing to Houston in the conference finals wasn’t the first time New York had been eliminated by a lower seed. So again the Red Bulls are at a crossroads as a good team burdened by playoff failure with just one MLS Cup appearance, in 2008, on the resume.

2013 New York Red Bulls
Record: 17-9-8
Finish: 1st in Eastern Conference, Supporters' Shield champion.
Playoffs: lost in conference semifinals.

Offseason changes, while not extensive, are significant. New York declined to pick up the option on Fabian Espindola, who scored nine goals after being picked up from Real Salt Lake in a trade that also brought Jamison Olave to the Eastern Conference. Olave’s new centerback partner is in contention, following the termination of Markus Holgersson’s contract.

Heath Pearce, an important cog of the 2012 team, didn’t see much time under head coach Mike Petke and has moved on. David Carney and Brandon Barklage departed. Goalie Kevin Hartman retired and has moved into the broadcast booth at Dallas.

Spanish defender Armando, 29, is one of three offseason acquisitions and a candidate to play alongside Olave. The other two arrivals come from Toronto via separate trades: former U.S. international Bobby Convey is trying to win a starting spot on the flank and Richard Eckersley provides competition for right back Kosuke Kimura.

These additions may not significantly improve the roster but they can provide depth. There are already enough impactful players and role performers on hand to generate results. The resignation of Jerome de Bontin -- who handled the business side -- shouldn’t affect how sporting director Andy Roxburgh and Petke handle the competitive side.

Petke carefully managed the preseason minutes played by Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry, who combined for 21 goals and 14 assists last year. In lieu of any attacking options, other than Convey, being added, there’s pressure to produce on Bradley Wright-Phillips, and he responded with a pair of goals against Orlando City and one against Montreal. Last season, he netted twice in nine games, including playoffs, after being signed in late July and can be a valuable weapon against teams overly mindful of Henry and Cahill.

Eastern Conference Preview:
Chicago | Columbus | D.C. United
Houston | Montreal | New England

WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Concerns about Petke as a rookie head coach were largely alleviated last season. Major personalities Cahill, Henry and Olave produced for him, speedster Lloyd Sam made a lot of progress, and MLS cast-offs Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander delivered consistent, and occasionally impressive, performances. Dax McCarty relished his role as a midfield conduit, and goalie Luis Robles played every minute in goal to provide a stability not present at times in the past. Under Petke, the pieces seemed to fit on the field and in the locker room.

WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Defensive concerns resurfaced when New York conceded four goals in the two playoff games with Houston, and finding the right fit for Olave’s partner is crucial. Armando and Ibrahim Sekagya struggled when Orlando City torched the Red Bulls four times in a preseason game, though Sekagya played several solid games last year. This will be the first time Cahill has missed a portion of the MLS season to play in the World Cup. The much-maligned Roy Miller is still around.

PROJECTED FINISH: 2nd-4th place. This will be a bumpier ride than in 2013 and at least one other team will be more resilient and/or lucky.

PROJECTED LINEUP: 4-4-2
Goalkeeper:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
31-Luis Robles (29)/USA (3rd season)

Defenders:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
27-Kosuke Kimura (29)/Japan (2nd season)
4-Jamison Olave (32)/Colombia (2nd season)
5-Armando (29)/Spain (Cordoba)
7-Roy Miller (29)/Costa Rica (5th season)

Midfielders:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
10-Lloyd Sam (29)/England (3rd season)
12-Eric Alexander (25)/USA (2nd season)
11-Dax McCarty (26)/USA (4th season)
22-Jonny Steele (28)/Northern Ireland (2nd season)

Forwards:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
17-Tim Cahill (34)/Australia (3rd season)
14-Thierry Henry (36)/France (5th season)

First off the bench:
NO. PLAYER (AGE)/COUNTRY
15-Bobby Convey (30)/USA (Toronto FC)
2-Richard Eckersley (24)/England (Toronto FC)
8-Peguy Luyindula (34)/France (2nd season)
99-Bradley Wright-Phillips (28)/England (2nd season)
New York Red Bulls: complete roster.

Note:
returning players in bold.

MARCH SCHEDULE:
March 8: at Vancouver, 10:30 pm ET
March 15: Colorado, 4 pm ET
March 23: at Chicago, 3 pm ET (UniMas)
March 30: Chivas USA, 3 pm ET (UniMas)
New York Red Bulls: complete schedule.


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