2013 New York Red Bulls Season Preview

Or “Why the New York Red Bulls will finally win the MLS Cup”
by Zac Wassink   |   Friday, March 01, 2013

Branded Bulls – column on Red Bull NY (RBNY – NYRB) & the New Jersey area soccer scene.

MLS Cup or bust

It's been the mantra of the New York Red Bulls since the franchise acquired superstars Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez back in the summer of 2010. Sadly for the team and its long-suffering fan base, “bust” would be a proper term to use when describing the Red Bulls.

They still have yet to win a single playoff game in their shiny soccer specific stadium, and Red Bull went and hit the reset button last fall before New York even had a chance to get eliminated from the postseason by hated rivals DC United. To steal a quote from the great Linus van Pelt: Of all the RBNY's in the world, the Red Bulls truly are the RBNY-iest.

That all comes to an end this year.

Gone are Marquez and his undeserved and unearned $4.6 million salary. Gone is a front office that seemingly cared more about filling Red Bull Arena and getting noticed by any local press than it did about winning trophies. Gone is a head coach who, despite having the best of intentions, just didn't get Major League Soccer.

It's a new day at Red Bull New York, and everybody within the club gets to start anew on March 3 when the team faces off against Portland Timbers in the season opener.

Why the optimism?

It's easy for critics to pick apart the current Red Bulls. They've got a rookie manager in Mike Petke, a man who was never the first or second choice of the new administration. New York's leading scorer from 2012, Kenny Cooper, now features for FC Dallas because of a trade that RBNY had to make due to budgetary reasons. Captain Thierry Henry already has one foot back in Europe where he one day hopes to coach and/or manage at a big club, perhaps his beloved Arsenal. This team is built to flounder and fizzle out, yes?

Not if it turns out that Petke is indeed the perfect man to lead the squad to glory. Take a glance at the current Red Bulls roster. It includes the likes of the previously mentioned Henry, Tim Cahill, Juninho, Dax McCarty, Heath Pearce, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola. A squad with this much experience doesn't need a manager who knows the ins and outs of formations and man-marking. They need somebody to pat them on their backs when needed, and also to kick their butts when such a boot is warranted. It's the role that was meant for Petke ever since he called it a career a few years ago.

You also shouldn't ignore that the Red Bulls have quite a bit of talent. Their backline is arguably the most underrated in all of MLS. Heath Pearce could start for any team at any defensive position if asked. Markus Holgersson evolved into a legitimate starting CB during the second half of the 2012 campaign. Brandon Barklage, Kosuke Kimura and Connor Lade can rotate at RB. Roy Miller isn't nearly as bad as some would lead you to believe (so long as he limits his more boneheaded miscues and avoids taking another free kick as long as he plays in the US top-tier league).

New York's midfield is an intriguing mix of youth and experience. Dax McCarty was the best CDM in all of MLS and also the team's MVP in 2012. There's no reason to believe that Juninho won't produce multiple moments of magic for Henry and Espindola, so long as the 38-year old can remain fit. Tim Cahill has some MLS experience under his belt, and he should also have a clear home in Petke's starting XI. The likes of Lloyd Sam, Ruben Bover, Ian Christianson, and even Barklage and Lade will do just fine in filling in any open slots.

Goalkeeper Ryan Meara was well on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honors until a hip injury ended his season in August, and Luis Robles was a good, if not always great, replacement. Robles will be Petke's first-choice 'keeper this spring as Meara continues to recover.

Henry is still the most talented attacking player in the league, and Espindola, if he can avoid injuries, will enjoy playing up top along with the living legend.

And I'm supposed to be worried about this team, why?

Those of you concerned about depth and team chemistry need to remember that MLS Cup winners are not solidified in the winter. They become whole during the summer transfer window and then get hot at the right time. That's how it works when you play in a league that allows over half of its clubs to compete in a postseason championship tournament. The Red Bulls don't have to be a great team throughout 2013. They just need to get great by the time mid-October rolls around.

Minus multiple catastrophes, the Red Bulls will be a lock to make the playoffs. That means that Petke and company will have roughly eight months to get things right before it really counts. That's over double the time LA needed last year.

The others

Chicago Fire made improvements this past offseason, but they have a lot to prove before I'm ready to believe that they are capable of contending for the MLS Cup. The LA Galaxy will miss David Beckham, and not just because of ticket and shirt sales. Sporting KC haven't yet convinced me that they've replaced Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara (Kamara will have no reason to return to MLS this summer if he continues his solid play at Norwich City). DC United is a solid but not overly intimidating side. Seattle Sounders have replaced New York as the league's top “MLS Cup or bust” team, so we'll have to wait and see how they handle that pressure. San Jose Earthquakes won't be able to surprise anybody this time around.

The Red Bulls have just as many questions as does any other team at the start of February. Will the guys in their new look backline eventually mesh with each other? Can New York's over-30 club be fully fit at the end of the regular season? Will Petke know when to man-manage and when to get out of the way? If the answer to each of these questions ends up being “yes,” then New York is going to be right there with the best of the best come November.

Prediction

The journey to the MLS Cup is not a sprint nor is it a marathon. It's all about one thing: survival. 2013 is not going to be an easy year for us, fellow Red Bulls fans. Petke will surely make multiple first-year miscues, guys will go down to injuries, and some of you will question why you even bother with this whole thing before summer arrives. All New York have to do is make it to the playoffs. From there, the championship is anybody's to win; and also anybody's to lose.

One final thought on the matter. Henry is a winner, and also the most competitive person I've ever met. If several people who are much smarter about these things than I am are right, then 2013 could be the last year Henry plays as a full-time professional footballer, at least in the United States. Henry hoisting the MLS Cup, the first in franchise history, would be a fitting end to this chapter of his storied career.

NEXT UP: March 3 – New York vs. Portland, JELD-WEN Field. 7:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2.

Zac WASSINK

Nationality:
USA
College:
Penn State
Club Domestic:
Red Bull NY
Club Foreign:
Tottenham Hotspur
A New York Mets fan, Zac thought it best to choose the Mets of MLS, the Red Bulls, as his domestic club. A big fan of MLS, Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League and even the A-League (No Guts, No Glory), Zac covers RBNY and the NY-NJ soccer scene.
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