Inside MLS season preview: New York Red Bulls
Last year in a nutshell: New York finally shed its nearly men tag under first-year boss Mike Petke and lifted the Supporters' Shield, but the Red Bulls' dream season surprisingly ended in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
(as of March 2)
Outgoing: GK: Kevin Hartman (retired); DF: Brandon Barklage (San Jose), David Carney (Newcastle Jets/Australia), Markus Holgersson (Wigan Atletic/England), Heath Pearce (unattached); FW: Amando Moreno (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Fabián Espíndola (D.C. United)
Key Player: Increased responsibility and stability throughout the squad means Thierry Henry doesn't have to lift the team by himself anymore. The shift places Henry in a position where his magic constitutes an added bonus, not a necessity. New York still relies on him from time to time for a moment of brilliance. And it's OK to do so. Henry – even at this advanced stage of his career and with retirement possibly around the corner – can provide that extra bit of something as the Red Bulls search for their first MLS Cup.
Strengths: Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh and coach Mike Petke wisely focused on keeping this squad together and tinkering around the edges heading into this season. This deep, settled and talented side possesses all of the necessary tools to fulfill their objectives. The defensive core – even without the quietly solid Holgersson – is firm and resolute. Jámison Olave pulls everything together with his athletic and physical presence in the middle of the back four. He remains one of the league's top defenders. In midfield, everything runs through Dax McCarty as the tidy conduit in possession. Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele both earned international callups for their displays on either side a year ago, though Alexander could feature in his more natural role through the middle at points this season. Tim Cahill might feature as an attacking midfielder or as a second forward depending on the needs of the team, but his runs into the penalty area present him with opportunities in either spot. Henry floats around in the attacking half and pulls opposing defenses apart with his runs. Peguy Luyindula and Bradley Wright-Phillips are both in the mix to partner him. Depth – unlike in previous seasons – is a genuine strength with the diverse and plentiful options at Petke's disposal.
Weaknesses: Petke might have to lean on his squad more than he'd prefer given the availability of his top performers. Cahill will miss time in the buildup to the World Cup. Henry doesn't play on turf. Olave probably shouldn't test those knees on artificial surfaces, either. New York managed those absences well last season, but it's tough to expect this squad to escape unscathed for any length of time. Olave and Ibrahim Sekagya must resist their urges to lunge into tackles too earnestly and roam around too freely. The reported desire to sign a third Designated Player at some stage stems from a desire to upgrade to the Luyindula/Wright-Phillips combination, but it's tough to quibble too much with the personnel on hand after the Red Bulls led MLS in scoring a year ago (59 goals in 34 matches).
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Who will take charge in the fullback department?: New York strengthened on both sides of its back four to create significant competition within the ranks. Richard Eckersley and Kosuke Kimura appear poised to battle for the shirt at right back, while Roy Miller holds the inside track over Bobby Convey (if Petke attempts to use him here) or the second choice on the right for his usual place.
● How will the wings take shape?: Petke boasts a variety of performers capable of playing in the wide areas in his preferred 4-4-2 setup. Incumbents Alexander (on the right) and Steele (on the left) aren't traditional wingers. They tend to tuck inside to provide room for the fullbacks on the overlap, while potential alternatives like Convey (a true left winger) or Lloyd Sam (a fleet option on the right) stretch the field horizontally to make the best use of their own abilities.
● Where will Tim Cahill play?: The versatile Australian international thrived in midfield a year ago, but he could slide into a second striker role heading into this season. His positioning depends on how others perform in midfield (the effectiveness of Alexander or Luyindula through the middle, for instance) and whether Luyindula or Wright-Phillips can partner Henry effectively. Expect Cahill to receive time in both spots as the season unfolds.
Best case scenario: The magic from last season continues into 2014 as the Red Bulls benefit from their focus on stability during the close season. Olave leads a resolute defense improved by the reinforcements during the winter. The midfield retains its usual structure. Cahill and Henry propel the attacking ambitions with their enduring class. And the Red Bulls build upon their Supporters' Shield success from a year ago by lifting MLS Cup at long last.
Worst case scenario: Most of the foundations start to crack as the aging legs feel the effects of a congested fixture list. Cahill, Henry and Olave miss significant stretches of time. The rest of the cast does its best to mitigate the concerns, but the results and the prospects of a second consecutive Supporters' Shield dip accordingly. New York makes the postseason once again, but another early playoff exit ends those MLS Cup dreams for another year.
“I still feel, in my mind, that we won the hardest thing to win, and that was the Supporters' Shield. This year, it's a massive target to try and potentially win MLS Cup.”
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS
MARCH 6: Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps