In 2009, the New York Red Bull franchise hit rock bottom. The hope for this year is that moving away from the House of Horrors will exorcise the demons that plague the franchise.
After over a decade of promises, the Red Bulls will finally move out of the barren Giants Stadium and into the pinnacle of soccer-specific stadiums in America that will be known as Red Bull Arena.
The hope is that the new stadium will invigorate the fans, and that the increased closeness of the stadium, where the stands are only a mere 21 feet away from the sidelines and 27 feet away from the end-line, will create an entirely different atmosphere compared to the rather empty Giants Stadium.
Still, a shiny new place to call home will not really change the performance of the team on the pitch.
Last season, the Red Bulls finished with the worst record in all of MLS and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Another offseason completed and another roster overhaul has taken place.
The makeover begins with a new coach.
Hans Backe has become the 12th coach since the franchise’s inception in 1996. He has zero experience in MLS, and the past shows that foreign coaches have had more than their share of struggles in the league with strange rules regarding roster sizes, no reserve team, and working with a salary cap.
However, the players seem to be impressed with Backe’s coaching style. They say he knows the game, and most importantly, he is extremely organized.
The players have been jubilant about how Backe has the team focused; has a single game plan and team identity; and how the players have defined roles and understand what is expected of them. This is a far cry from the days of Juan Carlos Osorio’s constant tinkering with the game day lineups and tactics.
Along with a new coach are a slew of new players: international signings, MLS veterans, and rookies alike.
The Red Bulls have brought in two foreign internationals at positions that were huge weaknesses on the left-side of the field last year. Estonian Joel Lindpere is a left midfielder and Costa Rican Roy Miller will man the left fullback spot.
At 28-years-old Lindpere already has 74 appearances with the Estonian national team. Although better suited for the left midfield spot, Backe feels that Lindpere is creative enough that he could wind up playing as an attacking central midfielder.
Miller has been tabbed to play on the left-side of a defense that tied in surrendering a league-worst 47 goals against last season.
Miller, 25, has a good combination of size and speed. He likes to push forward and join the attack, and he is a threat when he does so. His defense does not suffer though, where he is a solid option.
Furthering the team facelift there are the additions of MLS veterans Chris Albright and Carl Robinson.
Albright, a member of the 2006 United States national team that competed in the World Cup, was brought in to bring a veteran presence to the right fullback spot. Jeremy Hall mostly played there last season as a rookie, and while he did a lot of nice things, it was obvious that he was new to the position (Hall had been converted from left midfield).
Robinson, a Welsh international, was a two-time team MVP with Toronto F.C. He is a defensive midfielder who would be valuable either as a starter or coming off the bench, as the Red Bulls have a number of central mids, especially if Lindpere sees time at that position.
Then there are the rookies. When you have as awful a season as the Red Bulls did last year, you get prime choosing spots in the draft.
Second overall pick Tony Tchani is a big, athletic center mid who is a very sharp passer. His potential is great, but he may wind up beginning the season as a substitute because of the deep numbers at his position. It wouldn’t hurt him to be brought in slowly though.
Third-round pick Conor Chinn has had a productive preseason. He is second on the team in goals, netting four.
The rookie that has shown the most though is second-round pick and central defender Tim Ream.
Backe has been impressed by his comfort on the ball, his passing ability, his poise, and his efficiency in the air. Ream looks like he could be starting alongside veteran and Red Bull fan favorite Mike Petke when the season starts.
There are still some returning players that are extremely valuable as well. Designated player and forward Juan Pablo Angel is still a lethal goal scorer; Petke still plays with a ton of passion and can hold down the fort; and Hall, even though he was learning a new position on the fly, overall had an impressive rookie campaign.
There is talent on the roster.
There is a coach with a consistent strategy in place.
There is the new stadium that the league, team, players, and Red Bull fans have dreamed of. An undefeated preseason also gives everyone some optimism.
The consensus coming out of camp is that the team expects to be fighting for a playoff spot. It seems ambitious after the debacle of 2009 and another roster turnover. But with what’s in place it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
In fact, Red Bull fans will expect a strong campaign from the team this year.
Otherwise, that new stadium will just be like dressing up a pig covered in mud.
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