New York Red Bulls: How They Went From Worst To First in the East
This time last year, the New York Red Bulls ended their season with a resounding 5-0 victory over Toronto FC in their final game at Giants Stadium. That result, however, was a complete anomaly in what was a disastrous season for the Red Bulls, who finished with a league-worst 21 points from 30 games.
Fast forward 12 months, and the Red Bulls ended the season with a 2-0 victory over New England, which ensured the team first place in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs.
Not since 2000 has the team headed into the playoffs with such anticipation from the fans, and thanks to a couple of key midseason additions, they are arguably the league's leading franchise in commercial impact on the sport in the United States.
As the team prepares to face San Jose in the first round of the playoffs, let's study some of the key reasons that jolted the biggest turnaround in MLS history (ironically, the 2000 New York franchise is the team they are tied with)!
The New Management Team
During the offseason, most had an opinion on who they’d like the new GM and head coach to be.
Richie Williams was a firm fan favorite to become full-time head coach, and high profile names were muttered (Klinsmann, Djorkaeff, Adams).
The club went instead with two people relatively unknown to your average MLS fan, Scandinavians Eric Soler and Hans Backe. Richie remained as assistant coach, Groan Aral was added to the staff and Des McAleenan continued his role as GK coach.
The difference as been immense.
The old regime failed to bring in European players as they claimed they were too over priced, and predominantly missed on many they brought in from South America. Enter Soler and his network of contacts, and it is very hard to argue that he has made any busts in his transfers this year.
There has also been a huge turnaround in the productivity of the training sessions at Montclair State University. Under Juan Carlos Osario, many practices almost looked to be at walking pace while emphasis was placed on what the opposition would do and how the Red Bulls would try to stop them, rather than how New York would impose itself on the opposition.
Backe has brought in many higher levels of intensity and competition that the players have thrived on, and barring a couple of debatable selection calls (but which coach doesn't have these?), has pretty much nailed his selections and tactics all season long and is a frontrunner for MLS Coach of the Season.
Key Preseason Additions
That was the collective question from most of the fans when they brought in Joel Lindpere in the offseason.
However, the Estonian has turned in an MVP performance all season long and endeared himself to the fans with key goals (the first and last of the season at Red Bull Arena), a tireless work ethic and the fact he declined call-ups from the Estonian National team so he could aid the Red Bulls in their push for the playoffs.
At $80,000 per year, Eric Soler picked up an absolute gem.
Aside from Lindpere, Costa Rica international Roy Miller has been another key addition and has made the left back position his own all season. Across the back four, Chris Albright has returned from devastating injury and is beginning to get back to his best, so much so that he is a contender for Comeback Player of the Year.
Other additions such as Carl Robinson and Salou Ibrahim have also made solid contributions to the team's fortunes.
The Baby Bulls
During the team's US Open Cup run this year, the starting lineup, which heavily features rookies and other recently drafted players, became affectionately know as the Baby Bulls.
None have been any better than this season than Tim Ream, a favorite for Rookie of the Year and an almost certain future international defender.
Ream's tough tackling, instinctive positioning and composure in possession of the ball have seen him play every minute of the Red Bulls season, and he is a huge reason the Red Bulls have conceded 18 fewer goals than in 2009.
No. 2 overall MLS draft pick Tony Tchani has played 27 league games this season and seen his form continuously improve as the season wore on. The midfielder has turned into a valuable starter for New York, and his absence for the first playoff game in San Jose will felt.
Three other rookies also made the team this year with Austin Da Luz seeing the bench in recent weeks after an injury-plagued first season. Connor Chinn bagged four goals in four games in the Cup, where Irving Garcia's flair made him a fan favourite.
Other recently drafted players Danleigh Borman and Sinisa Ubiparipovic not only showed great form in the Cup, but have transferred it to league play and performed admirably when called upon.
The Designated Players
Juan Pablo Angel was New York's first designated player. He repaid the teams investment by quickly becoming the all-time franchise leader in goals scored, and this season banged home another 13 in league play.
However, for the first time in his career he was somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of two new DP's.
Rumor had been rife that Thierry Henry would be coming to New York after the World Cup, and when he did the whole footballing world took notice. Henry No. 14 jerseys flew from the shelves and many of New York's European soccer fans felt inclined to attend their first MLS game to see him play.
His performance on the field has been plagued by nagging injuries and a lack of full match fitness, yet he has still weighed in with important goals and flashes of his genius. His impact on this team goes far beyond his on-field performance though. His effect on the locker room and training, the knowledge he passes to his teammates and his commercial value more than justify his acquisition.
Then there is Rafael Marquez. After the unsurprising signing of Henry, this one really crept up on most people when the Red Bulls announced they had signed the Mexican national team captain.
Like Henry, his experience and presence is a huge addition to all in the squad, and his quality in the defensive midfield role is there for all to see. Due to joining the team without any preseason training, he is still yet to reach his peak fitness levels. When he does the rest of the MLS better beware, as he could very well be the best player in this league.
The Rise of Dane Richards
When New York signed two Designated Players in the summer, they effectively added another.
Dane Richards, the Jamaican international often maligned as an "all speed, no skill" winger finally put it all together.
He has shown flashes of his potential to be great during his four years in the league, and his performance against Houston in the 2008 playoffs was one of the greatest performances by any player in a New York shirt. Yet his inconsistencies continued to frustrate and infuriate fans even up to the summer.
Could it be coincidence that the turnaround coincided with the signings of Henry and Marquez? Possibly. But either way he has arguably been the Red Bulls' most dangerous attacking weapon in the final three months of the season, and if he continues this form into the playoffs, he could see himself being one of the major heroes on this team.
Red Bull Arena
After nine years in Giants Stadium and seeing a sprinkling of fans turn up to support this team, the Red Bulls finally unveiled their new home this season, the $220 million and 25,000 seat Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Not only is it undeniably the benchmark for soccer stadiums in the United States, drawing praise from all that have visited, but its effect on the mentality of players, staff and fans cannot be understated.
Average attendances swelled from 12,000 last year to 16,000 this year heading into the summer. Following the World Cup break and the signings of Henry and Marquez, the average attendance has been an outstanding 21,000.
The extra fan support, atmosphere and the piece of mind that comes with having a place to call your home has certainly had an effect on the team, specifically when they opened the season with a six-game win streak at home, which quickly eradicated those dark memories from a year ago and had the team believing in itself.
So What Now for the Playoffs?
Before the season began, the new management team said that the team's hopes were to make the playoffs. Not may fans would have argued if the team was to fulfill this goal.
However, given the events of this season and the dramatic turnaround of this team and franchise, it has almost come to the point where anything less than a championship will be met with disappointment.
Have the Red Bulls become the Yankees of the MLS?
This team enters the playoffs as one of the favorites and most neutral fans (and those in the league's head office) would be salivating at the prospect of a New York vs. LA Galaxy star-studded championship game.
First step though, San Jose.