When the 2013 season started, not much was expected from the New York Red Bulls under rookie head coach Mike Petke. When the season ended, the Red Bulls were Supporter Shield Winners, Petke was a finalist for Coach of the Year, and the 18-year Curse of Caricola was finally broken.Now, the 2014 season is finally upon us. First Kick is just days away and it is time to see if the New York Red Bulls are ready to become a franchise or just be another club.
In past seasons when NY failed to win anything, there was significant turnover on the field and in the front office. After a successful 2013 campaign, Mike Petke and Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh decided to go a different direction; continuity. The Red Bulls have only lost five key players: Markus Holgersson, Brandon Barklage, David Carney, Heath Pearce, and Fabian Espindola. NY also lost Kevin Hartman and Amando Moreno but neither saw MLS minutes last season. New York’s key pickups for the 2014 season are Bobby Convey, Armando, and Richard Eckersley.
The changes from 2013 to 2014, for the most part, are on the defensive end of the ball. The three players New York brought into the side this season is going to feature prominently on the defensive end of the ball. Armando, right now, is beating out Sekagaya for the spot next to Olave and that’s fine by me. Holgersson was normally the guy organizing the backline for NY last season. It’s what Petke wanted from him and why he was benched to start the season. Olave is the big bruiser and the one who takes the risks on the backline, so having someone to stay back and know when to cover the flanks, is going to be key down the stretch. Armando seems to be this type of player over Sekagaya. Not to mention, Armando’s vision of the field and understanding of where to play a pass from the back is not only better than Sekagaya, but Holgerssons’s as well. It’s obvious Petke wasn’t happy with the play of the fullbacks in 2013, as week to week, you never really knew who would be filling that role
On the offensive side, the Red Bulls still retain one of the more impressive attacking depths of all MLS. In past seasons, scoring goals has never really been a problem for NY, as they always sit somewhere near the top in goals scored over the course of a regular season. The main concern in the attack has been two key things: First, a creative force in the midfield; and second, someone to partner up top with Henry. To end 2013 and start 2014, Petke seemed determined to find a creative number 10 but as time went on, either a plausible solution could not be singed or Petke and Roxburgh came to the realization that the talent they had at their disposal is more than enough. Peguy Luyindula, in flashes (see Shield clinching win over Chicago last October), seemed to fill the role of a number 10 and sliced up more than a few defenses down the final stretch of games in 2013. AS for a strike partnership with Henry, the Red Bulls have a wealth of options, finally, available. Tim Cahill seems likely to be Henry’s number one option, playing a false number 9. It’s a great move by Petke, as Cahill’s movement in the box is always difficult to track and with quality of service coming form the likes of Sam, Henry, Steele, Miller, and Eckersley it does seem Cahill could be poised to punch a ton more corner flags across MLS stadiums this year. There’s also a huge plus to playing Cahill up top: it allows Petke to get Eric Alexander and Lloyd Sam on the field at the same time. Alexander in a defensive midfield role next to Dax and Sam out wide on the right; giving the Red Bulls a stronger presence in the center of the park and fast, technically gifted player on the flank who is not afraid to take players on. Bradely Wright-Phillips and Luyindula also have developed nice little partnerships with Henry over the course of the last year and could fill in for Cahill (or Henry a la come Vancouver on Saturday) when he’s away for international duty.
The X-factor for the Red Bulls Season:
The media and fans alike keep throwing around differing opinions on what will be the x-factor for NY’s season. The clock, father time, Henry’s contract, and a congested schedule all point to the aging legs of this New York side. Henry is 37 and in the final year of his contract, Cahill is 34 and has a World Cup to go play in, and Olave’s injury concerns are ever persistent in this long season with added CCL and Open Cup play. In seasons past, Henry has been criticized for not playing on turf and that’s fair. At the time, Henry was this teams sole leader and was often carrying them through long stretches of play. Now, guys like Cahill, Dax, Sam, Luyindula, BWP, and Jonny Steele have the chops to still beat the best in MLS without Henry. It’s going to come down to how well Petke rotates his squad for CCL and Open Cup play. Henry and Olave will play in every MLS game they are healthy for (and are not on turf). Whether they head down to Central America in the late summer and early fall during the run to the playoffs will be a decision Petke will have to weigh. All of this boils into Petke’s ability to man manage and man manage Petke will. A lot of players have staked their case last season and this pre-season of why they should have playing time over others. The majority of the squad will see the field at some point this season and it’s how they play that will determine where NY is come December.
There is also an underlying factor to the 2014 season and it’s Thierry Henry’s contract. Henry is in his last season with MLS and he is undecided on what to do following this season. Henry’s future puts the Red Bulls in a peculiar position as the season moves along. Brazil 2014 is less than 100 days away and many players in Europe will be on the move this summer, more than a few could be looking to try their talents in MLS. While the Red Bulls have an open DP slot, that third slot seems destined for a creative midfielder at some point. If Henry is to end his playing days, it is only reasonable to assume they would want to replace their star striker with another striker.
For the site, we always give our predications for the varying awards that come at the end of the regular season as well as pick the three title winners and sometimes it’s hard to be unbiased. I myself picked Olave for Defender of the Year and Armando for Newcomer because I believe the two of them will shore up one of the shakiest backlines over the past few seasons. I also am picking the Red Bulls, as are many others, to win MLS Cup 2014. Last year Jimmy Nielsen retired a champion and David Beckham did it the year before, both at home. Is it crazy to think that destiny can strike a third time and see Thierry Henry walk off the field, for the last time, in Harrison holding the cup up on high?
(image courtesy of newyorkredbulls.com)