The Red Bulls open the season this Sunday at the Timbers, one of the most difficult places to play in MLS. Hopes are high in Mike Petke’s first season as head coach with the team trying to build on three straight trips to the postseason. It won’t be as easy as fans might hope.
The team has question marks and Petke has never been a head coach before, meaning there will be a severe learning curve on and off the field. And in Thierry Henry’s last season with the Red Bulls, the time is now for the franchise’s first MLS Cup. Patience from the team’s ownership in Austria might be next to nil.
Storylines to watch ...
1. Where will the goals come from?
Last season, the Red Bulls offense was paced by Kenny Cooper’s 18 goals, but the hulking forward was traded to Dallas this offseason and he leaves a giant hole. His production will be replaced, in theory, by former Real Salt Lake forward Fabian Espindola. While gifted on the ball, Espindola is not a true goal scorer and unless he has a career year, goals may be hard to come by early on for the Red Bulls.
2. Will the backline be better?
For much of last year, the defense struggled to keep the ball out of their net, giving up 46 goals. The defense returns largely intact, with the only noticeable addition being Real Salt Lake defender Jamison Olave, a defender with a physical reputation but at 31 years old is losing his speed and cover ability. Given what appears to be a rather plebian attack, the defense must stay compact and tight. In their last five preseason games, New York has given up 11 goals. Things don’t seem to be getting much better and this again might be a struggle for New York.
3. Is Petke Ready?
A fan favorite after two playing tours with New York, Petke is the epitome of soccer in this region. He parlayed success in high school in Long Island to a solid college career and then a long and storied career as a rugged defender in MLS. But is he ready to coach the team? After being an assistant coach for just two years, there is still plenty for Petke to learn. The locker room loves him, but the players will need to learn to respect him.
Players to watch ...
1. Lloyd Sam – The English midfielder was signed late last season and showed sparks in five games before being shelved with a knee injury. The 28-year-old winger is speedy and reads the game well but must be consistent in a midfield that might struggle to maintain possession.
2. Dax McCarty – Last year was a breakout season for the American midfielder, who is a pit bull in the center of the park. He deserved another call-up to the national team camp in January as he was in 2010. McCarty must continue to be a ball winner who will spark the attack.
3. Tim Cahill – The Australian international didn’t put up big numbers after his summer signing from Everton but he will be called on to pull the strings in the midfield. Cahill must be more daring this season if the Red Bulls again want to make the playoffs. He is a designated player and while his style isn’t flamboyant, he must begin to earn his high paycheck.
Follow Red Bulls beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.