Season Preview: New York Red Bulls

IMAGE, EMPIRE OF SOCCER

Continuity and success have raised the bar by the banks of the Passaic as the New York Red Bulls begin their voyage into the 2014 season.

Will it be enough to finally catapult them into the MLS Cup?

That will surely be a tough proposition. The Eastern Conference presents a much more formidable competition than they encountered last season. Toronto FC leads a core of teams that have added talent, like D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union. Sporting Kansas City have only gotten stronger while teams like Columbus and New England return reinforced as well.

New York have lost key veterans, but replaced them with several new and returning youth options that they hope will buoy their efforts across a congested schedule.

Still, at the core, the Red Bulls remain every bit the same season champions they were last year.

Will it be enough? Here is your season preview:

2013 FINISH: 17-9-8, 59 points (First in Eastern Conference, Supporters’ Shield Winners)

INCOMING PLAYERS
Bobby Convey, Armando, Richard Eckersley, Chris Duvall, Ambroise Oyonogo, Eric Stevenson

OUTGOING PLAYERS
Markus Holgersson, Brandon Barklage, Heath Pearce, Fabian Espindola, Kevin Hartman, David Carney, Armando Moreno

THE SCHEDULE

Petke’s man-management will be tested in a congested 2014 calendar. Besides an already demanding MLS regular season schedule, New York’s achievements in 2013 have earned them a shot at CONCACAF Champions League competition. Those two schedules will collide directly with the U.S. Open Cup. As if that wasn’t enough, the Red Bulls are rumored to be participating in mid-season friendlies, perhaps against captain Thierry Henry’s former club Arsenal. All these fronts will further be stretched by World Cup competition, where New York may lose Tim Cahill and Roy Miller as early as May.

THE STARS

Continuity leaves defined roles and responsibilities, so there is little that will change on the field. Off the field? That may be a different matter.

Thierry Henry enters the final year of his contract while Tim Cahill continues to ease the transition as front runner to lead this club after the Frenchman’s departure. Henry has a history of carrying the Red Bulls at their lowest points, but Cahill has become an equal talisman to his DP counterpart. A driven Henry, especially in his final year, along with the warrior mentality of Cahill will make for a dangerous combination.

While both stars are known quantities, all eyes will be on the summer transfer window for more. The end of the World Cup cycle will leave many a surprising star player up for grabs. New York continue to have a third DP slot ready to sue if the “right fit” does come along.

THE ROLEPLAYERS

New York lost veteran depth this offseason and replaced it, mostly, with young, unproven talent. Veterans like Armando and Ibrahim Sekagya will look to duke it out for Markus Holgersson’s former position. Young Richard Eckersley will play the part of Brandon Barklage in a season long battle at right back against Kosuke Kimura. Bobby Convey will eventually have his eyes on Jonny Steele’s spot.

But what of Connor Lade, Andre Akpan and this year’s rookie class? New York will be relying heavily on their youth to carry the team on the various fronts outside of the MLS regular season. Some, like Ruben Bover, have already made a case for themselves as late game options when New York is searching for a spark.

As always, youth will have a hard time cracking this Red Bull lineup, but unlike years past, there will be continuous opportunities to state their case.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Bobby Convey.

Bobby Convey played center midfielder, left midfield and left fullback through three matches this preseason before respiratory issues sidelined him for the remaining three matches. Entering the Florida camp, many asked where he would fit into the Red Bull system. Leaving preseason, that question remains as prevalent as ever. A well-traveled and well-compensated veteran, Convey is a player who commands starting minutes. How or where that will happen remains to be seen.

QUESTIONS THIS SEASON:

Will continuity be the winning formula? Can New York manage their way through a busy 2014 schedule? Will the team veterans manage to hold up under these circumstances? EOS writer Steve Hoffman delves into all of those questions in his piece “Issues That Will Define the Red Bulls’ Season.”

HOW WILL THEY FINISH

Last season was defined by a dog-pile battle for the Supporters’ Shield that saw New York go on an epic run towards their first trophy. Part of the Shield race was eased by the cannibalization of the Western teams down the stretch.

This year has the potential to make lasts year’s parity ridden season look tame in comparison. Teams have acquired stronger reinforcements this offseason while the Red Bulls stood content to give it another go with their core group.

My, how things have changed.

That continuity, along with a favorable schedule to end the season, should keep New York in contention to defend their Shield, and perhaps, advance towards the MLS Cup. Much of that will rely on Petke’s man-management and perhaps their additions in the summer transfer window. As they stand, New York may have to sacrifice other competitions in the quest for the MLS Cup. Though they will be in the conversation, they may fall just short.

Prediction: Second in the East, Eastern Conference Finals finish