Last year was a ride of incredible ups for the Red Bulls, along with very few downs.
A new stadium home in Red Bull Arena, a new coach and sporting director with a clear vision for the club and two marquee signings in Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez helped push New York to the Eastern Conference title in the regular season. But the one down for the year came when it mattered most, a 3-1 home loss in the playoffs knocking the team out on aggregate against a lower-seeded San Jose. The sour end to the season leaves the Red Bulls wanting a better taste in their mouth this time around.
The Red Bulls look like they could stampede in 2011 and are clear cut favorites out of the Eastern Conference to advance to the MLS Cup for just the second time in franchise history.
The Outlook: The Red Bulls return their core, minus last year’s leading scorer Juan Pablo Angel, and added intriguing pieces in Norwegian international Jan Gunnar Solli and Finnish star Teemu Tainio. There is depth on this team and lots of talent, but can the Red Bulls mesh as a unit and stay healthy to win not just in the regular season but also in the playoffs? “No one remembers what we did last year in the regular season because we lost in the playoffs,” midfielder Tony Tchani told Metro New York. “But they remember what Colorado did to win the MLS Cup.”
The Star: Last year, Thierry Henry was a midseason signing, the former Arsenal and Barcelona striker announced before 200 media members in the middle of July. Henry, however, was forced into the Starting XI without the benefit of a true preseason and battled injuries and fitness issues. This year, he appears set after two months of preseason training but now the league’s second highest paid player must do better than the two goals he scored last year.
Under The Radar: He may not play much early on, but look for draft pick Tyler Lassiter to get some minutes as the season progresses. Head coach Hans Backe has praised the young player as further along than Tim Ream was this time last year, and Ream parlayed a strong rookie year into a spot with the national team.
Area of Concern: It might be goal-scoring that fans will focus on but the club should be most unsettled by the fact that six of their starters could each miss as many as 10 games this summer due to playing for their respective national teams. The Red Bulls depth could be severely tested during this stretch. “It will be tough for us throughout the summer because we’ll be missing so many players,” Backe said.
What to Watch: Mexican national team captain Rafa Marquez, after playing in the midfield last year, has been moved to the backline and will partner centrally with Tim Ream. The two center backs give the Red Bulls great possession and composure along the back four, and Marquez’s distribution is already rubbing off on Ream. “I’ve learned so much from him already,” Ream said.