The Full 90

A New York look at the Red Bulls

Because the Wizards are taking on the Red Bulls this weekend, we asked Jack Bell of the New York Times for his insights on the Red Bulls. You can find more of Jack’s work at goal.blogs.nytimes.com.

When it comes these days to the New York Red Bulls, the well-worn sports cliché of “worst to first” is getting a workout. Whoa, just hang on a minute.

Last season’s worst team in Major League Soccer seems like a memory, accessible only with regression therapy. The previous, desultory club history — first as the MetroStars then as the walking, running billboard for an Austrian energy-drink empire — has been airbrushed away like so many portraits that hung in the Kremlin during the days of the Soviet Union.

A victory over visiting Kansas City on Saturday at the sparkling new Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., would usher the Red Bulls back into the M.L.S. postseason. At the same time, the Wizards’ playoff hopes are on life support, all this while the Red Bulls also have their eyes focused on overtaking Columbus at the top of the Eastern Conference and earning home-field advantage (such as is it) for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The transformation has been nothing short of stunning. First came a housecleaning on the club’s soccer side. Out went Juan Carlos Osorio as the coach while Erik Stover, hired to bring the new stadium online but uncomfortably thrust onto the soccer side, finally had his portfolio reduced. The soccer brain trust was renovated and in came the overall soccer major domo for all Red Bull teams, the German Dietmar Biersdorfer; the Norwegian Erik Soler, a former player agent, who enlisted the services of the Swede Hans Backe (who served as Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant at Manchester City and the Mexico national team) to coach the team. Imagine: a German general, a Norwegian general manager/sporting director, a Swedish coach working for a team owned by an Austrian and playing in the biggest media market in the United States. Talk about the global reach of soccer!

Then, the $220 million stadium, more than 10 years in the making, finally, finally, finally came online. And the wait was well worth it. By every estimation, RBA is the premier soccer venue in the United States and any new buildings (the Wizards’ included) will need to go a long way to match this 25,000-seat facility that has brought a true soccer feel to these shores. The club spared no expense and paid impeccable attention to detail in constructing an American cathedral to the game. Perhaps the only downside is that the new stadium was constructed on what we in New Jersey call a brownfields site — that is on land contaminated with an untold number of chemicals and other pollution during its previous life as a Rust Belt industrial site. So, on the banks of the Passaic River, across from Newark, stands a spanking new stadium surrounded by ... nothing at all. There are plans to develop a mixed-used commercial/residential complex next to the stadium, but those plans are on hold while the country deals with the current recession and a depressed real estate market.

But we digress.

Early on, Backe took stock of his charges and proclaimed that an M.L.S. championship was insight, just not until 2011, most likely. Then, after the World Cup, came a series of quick strikes that brought Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez to the Red Bulls as the club's second and third designated players. Next, the club obtained midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy from Colorado for the underachieving striker Mac Kandji. Add defender Carey Talley and the resurgence of defender Chris Albright to the mix and suddenly the Red Bulls have some depth.

And now, perhaps for the first time, the New York metropolitan area has a real soccer team to call its own for the first time since the Cosmos walked the earth about 25 years ago.

To anyone who would listen early on, Backe would say that “the goal is the playoffs, then anything can happen.”

Now they have taken a blue pencil to that mantra and a quick look at the schedule will provide the evidence. In the remaining regular season matches, the Red Bulls play only one team, Real Salt Lake, that is likely to qualify for the postseason. By contrast, Columbus has four challenging M.L.S. games on tap, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final against Seattle and still has a chance to advance to the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League with one more game to play in the group stage. That's a busy schedule compared to the Red Bulls’.

“Columbus has a hard schedule, but I think we have the possibility to win these last four games," Backe told MLSSoccer.com. “That’s why we have to go for the East to win it. We have three home games and the away game is just a few hours away in Philadelphia.”

While the path to the playoffs seems to be paved with good feelings, the club's recent acquisitions have presented Backe with some unanticipated challenges. Early on, some observers (including this one) questioned the ability and comfort level of Henry and Juan Pablo Angel when twinned up top for the Red Bulls. The acquisition of Angel has even brought the matter into sharper focus. In Ballouchy's first game, Angel, the club's leading goal scorer this season and in its history, road the bench into the second half.

Against the Galaxy last week, Angel started because Henry stayed back in New York with a knee injury.With Carlos Mendes and the rookie Tim Ream playing well in tandem in the middle of the defense, Backe has been able to push Marquez into the midfield, where his keen vision and laser-like passing have been a revelation. But it is a crowded midfield with Marquez, Dane Richards, Joel Lindpere, Ballouchy and the rookie Tony Tchani. The talent really cries out for a lone striker, either Henry or Angel. And with Angel in the final year of his contract (having joined the team under the Bruce Arena regime) it is likely that Henry will be the last striker standing come next season, when the Red Bulls will again scour the market for another designated player to replace the Colombian.

Some may question the club's loyalty to a player who has been nothing but a class act since he joined the team. But if this is now a real soccer team then the club's fans simply will have to get used to players coming and going. For now, there is nothing but good feeling and a true sense of optimism around the club ... something that has been absent for the club’s entire history.

  Comments