Bull’s Eye View: Issues That Will Define the Red Bulls’ Season

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

BY STEVE HOFFMAN
Staff Writer

Before I launch into this first column of the season, just a short preamble to explain what’s going on here. If you are a dedicated reader of this esteemed site, you have certainly read my opinion pieces before, particularly as we made our way through the fantastic 2013 New York Red Bulls Season. You may not recognize my name, however, and that’s because I wrote under the guise of The Red Bulls Optimist. At the end of last season, I decided to “come out,” as it were.

This year, I’ve decided to write under my real name in order to give me more freedom to express my views and mindset at any given point in the season. You will see that much like my previous public personality, my views lean — heavily — toward the optimistic, but for a team as complicated and dramatic as the Red Bulls, it’s not always easy to hold that line 100%. So, in this space, we may wander together to “darker” places, should events on the field, in the stands or in the Front Office warrant it. If die-hard optimism is your thing, you’ll still find the @RBNYOptimist doing his thing on Twitter all season long.

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The week before First Kick of an MLS season is always one of my favorite times of the year. This is because it’s the easiest time to be optimistic about your team and the season ahead. No balls have been kicked. No shots have gone into Row Z. No players are out of form. The rookies are full of promise and oh, so, “youthy”.

And best of all, everyone’s tied for first place. Yes, you’ve heard it right, The New York Red Bulls are currently tied for the 2014 Supporter’s Shield.

Of course, as you and I know, it’s not quite that simple. There are always issues. And on any one of those issues, we can choose to explain them away with a positive view or look at them as disasters waiting to strike at any moment. I won’t tell you which way to think about each item on the list below, but it will be interesting to see how they pan out as the season starts on Saturday and winds it’s way through Spring, Summer, and Fall to the MLS Cup at Red Bull Arena (see what I did there?).

Let’s start with one of my favorite borrowed phrases from our friends in Europe — “Fixture Congestion.” One known fact is that this will be the busiest season in years in which RBNY will participate, in terms of the sheer number of games that will count. MLS Regular season, CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), and The US Open Cup will all combine to create a schedule of games that will keep coming hot and heavy for the entire year. In MLS, the goal is clear: MLS Cup or bust. A good showing in the CCL would go miles toward erasing the bad taste that comes to our mouths every time we hear the words “W Connection.” And you know that the RBNY Front Office (and the fans) will be monitoring early rounds of the US Open Cup in anticipation of a match up with the Cosmos, even if just to count the unexpected upside of a (more) full Red Bull Arena for that match. Let’s not forget about a little tournament in the middle of the season that may require some of our International players to travel widely and play matches against the toughest competition in the world. Oh, and there’s those rumors about a friendly with a certain North London-based Premiere League team with past ties to Thierry Henry.

The positive view on this one is that all these matches will finally allow us to rotate in our young guns, who historically have had a near impossible task in finding meaningful playing time, not to mention giving one of the most passionate fan bases in MLS even more chances to fill the seats at Red Bull Arena, which is a plus both economically and for the fan experience as well. More tournaments also mean more chances to add to our trophy case (yes, it feels good to write that instead of “win our first piece of hardware”).

On the flip side, once RBNY get past their starting lineup, do they really have the depth to compete at the highest levels in all these competitions? Does the coaching staff, led by local hero Mike Petke, have the experience to come up with a rotation strategy pegged to the ever changing needs of the season? And the Front Office talks a good game about wanting to compete seriously in all competitions, but is that really possible?

Tied closely to the first issue above, is the next one — “Age and Health.” Let’s face it — our star players are not exactly youthful up and comers. Henry, Tim Cahill, Jamison Olave (who can be injury prone, to boot), Bobby Convey, Peguy Luindula and Ibrahim Sekagya are all 30+, and there are 5 more players who are 29 years old. That makes 44% of our current roster 29 or older.

On the positive side, again assuming that we can come up with a squad rotation strategy that makes sense, this could be among the deepest rosters that RBNY has ever assembled. There is good competition at many positions, and plenty of opportunity for the young players to make their case for more playing time, providing rest and cover for some of our more experienced players.

The negative view on this one is pretty easy. Lots of games plus lots of miles on these players legs equals injuries, slow pace and desultory performances. And what if the young players who are providing depth turn out to not be able to keep up with the competition? Or worse, get injured themselves?

Our last and final issue — “Front Office Roster Strategy”

Let’s take the positive first. The entire theme of this offseason and preseason has been “continuity.” Like a mantra handed down from some Austrian mountaintop, everyone from Andy Roxburgh through Equipment Manager (and folk hero), Fernando Ruiz has been pointing out the continuity between last season’s Shield winners and this season’s hopefuls. It’s a fantastically comforting feeling for the fans to know that, unlike most other years with this franchise, we did not turn over between one-third and one-half our roster. Though I would have liked to see just one more piece of continuity than we got (Where fore art thou, Markus Holgersson?), I’m willing to go with this one.

The negative on this one? Many other teams, particularly in the East, have been able to maintain their core for consistency, but at the same time, enhance their roster through acquiring new players. When you have as quiet an offseason as RBNY have had, it’s disquieting to see Toronto, New England and DC make their moves to improve. There’s nothing definitive to say that those moves will actually help (how many times have we overhauled rosters in the past to no avail?), but if you choose to take the negative path, it can make RBNY’s quiet confidence feel more like clueless inaction.

I’m excited for the start of the 2014 season, and you should be, too. Can we defend the Shield? Can we finally break through the Quarterfinals of MLS Cup? Who will step up and be the hero? I don’t know, but I’m going to — once again — enjoy the ride.