A soccer team greater than the sum of its big-name imports, finally

Thierry Henry. (Howard Megdal)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

HARRISON, NJ—Since their inaugural season in 1996, the New York Red Bulls (née Metrostars) have changed stadiums, changed their name, and reliably followed each brief period of success with extended failure.

Even as recently as last year, the team entered the season with low expectations and new management. They had won just five times the season before.

The Red Bulls media day on March 15 seemed like an introduction to something very different. Really.

In the flesh, as on paper, the collection of players assembled here for the press looked to be one of the best teams in Major League Soccer, and it will be a surprise if the season kicking off on Saturday against the Seattle Sounders isn't the best since the New York franchise, and this American professional soccer league, was founded.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

As has been the case many times before in the undistinguished history of the Metrostars-Red Bulls, there are imported soccer celebrities.

In seasons past, the team brought in Roberto Donadoni and Lothar Matthäus, which got them modest bursts of positive attention, and little else. Now the headliners are international stars Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez Álvarez.

At the media-day event, the two of them literally had the stage to themselves, basking in the incandescent glow of camera lights as they answered questions from a knot of TV and print reporters around them. Most of the rest of their teammates sat around the room in white chairs in small groups, talking to no media at all.

Nevertheless, this is a team that can play decent soccer, and not just because of the fancy guys. The roster put together by sporting director Erik Soler and managed by head coach Hans Backe played well last year before either of those soccer celebrities joined the team, and continued to win despite limited contributions from both. The Red Bulls' success this year will be predicated on their lesser-known players, like U.S. national team call-ups Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream.

“I think we have a good team,” said Backe, a stern-looking Swede, in an interview. “I think we are good enough to compete for the best team this year.”

Talking about his biggest roster problem, Backe cited the enviably large number of players he has who play for their national teams.

“It will be a tricky season with the Gold Cup [North and Central America regional championship] and Copa America [South America regional championship] and all the internationals,” Backe said. “We are a little bit unlucky, because we have five or six internationals.”

It's the kind of rotten luck most American teams would love to suffer through. (Henry, the longtime international for France, has given up playing for his country, ostensibly to concentrate on winning with the Red Bulls.)

To navigate those tournaments, along with inevitable injuries and slumps, the Red Bulls added a number of useful players at key positions, rather than signing another designated player (MLS teams are allowed three players whose salaries won't count against the hard salary cap) to match with Henry and Marquez, while allowing longtime designated player Juan Pablo Angel to sign with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

For his attack, Backe will rely on Henry and Dane Richards, the winger who showed significant improvement last season, finally finishing well to complement his blinding speed. To put it in perspective: Richards has 103 appearances with the team since getting drafted in 2007, and 13 goals. In his final seven matches last year, Richards scored five of those 13 goals.

“Each time I go onto the field now, I just feel I'm the most dangerous player,” Richards said. “And that is the confidence I want for each game. Before, sometime, I'd go out and I'd think, 'Am I gonna play well today, am I gonna score?' But now, I feel like when I go out there, I am gonna score.'”

When Richards fulfills commitments to play for the Jamaican national team, Backe can turn to a number of other talents up front.

Juan Agudelo, pressed into duty late last season when the 33-year-old Henry hurt his knee, had a busy offseason. He turned 18, but not before becoming the youngest player in United States history to score a goal in an international match. Depending on Backe's formation, Agudelo could be a regular fixture in a two-man strike partnership with Henry.

“Since I was little, I have wanted to be a professional player,” Agudelo said Tuesday, not far from the Barnegat Township, New Jersey town he's called home since he moved from Columbia as an eight-year-old. “It's amazing to just think that it was me accomplishing those things.”

More amazing still is that the Red Bulls thought highly enough of Agudelo to allow him to replace Angel, an international-class player and former standout for Aston Villa in the English Premier League, in the starting lineup. But he's got raw talent: a combination of intelligence (he's 18 years old) and physical strength that should make him a handful for the opposition.

Other attackers include the English import Luke Rodgers, who Backe said could play on Saturday after dealing with an injured knee through most of training camp, and newly-drafted Corey Hertzog, a scorer from Penn State with whom the coach also seems highly pleased.

In the midfield, Joel Lindpere returns. Like many of the other Red Bulls, Lindpere is an international player for Estonia, though he skipped a number of his country's matches down the stretch last season to help New York to the playoffs. Clearly following the Lindpere script, New York signed Norwegian international Jan Gunnar Solli to play opposite Lindpere, the team's 2010 MVP.

Mehdi Ballouchy will also see time as an attacking midfielder, while the second-year Tony Tchani, another wise New York draft pick, should continue to provide a solid physical presence and accurate passing. New York added John Rooney this offseason—he's the brother of Wayne Rooney (of Manchester United fame)—though it is not yet clear how he figures into Backe's plans.

The defense should be solid, with Marquez moving back to the central defender spot he played during his best years with Monaco and FC Barcelona, after a mostly failed attempt to stick him in a midfield position last year. He'll partner in the middle of the defense with Ream, who played every minute of every match last year while drawing raves around the league as a rookie. And just as the team found a Lindpere look-alike in Solli, the Red Bulls drafted Tyler Lassiter out of N.C. State, a central defender who can spell Ream and possibly equal him.

“Tyler's almost the exact same player that I am,” Ream said Tuesday. “He likes to be that finesse guy in the back, he's got great feet for a center back. He's probably got better feet than I do, which is a big plus for him, and why the staff liked him at the [draft] combine.”

And as Ream pointed out, having the luxury of that depth can help prevent a recurrence of last November's 3-1 playoff loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, a shock from a defense that hadn't allowed three goals since May.

(Ream also said: “I was watching the draft, and I heard them say, 'He's just like Tim Ream.' And I thought, 'Damn, I better start working harder!” Backe said Lassiter “looks like Ream's younger brother.”)

Flanking Marquez and Ream will be an evolving job, with veterans Roy Miller and Carlos Mendes likely to get first crack at the spots. Goalkeeping appears to be a shared position between Canadian international Greg Sutton and last season's incumbent, Senegal international Bouna Coundoul. Backe has yet to name a starter at the position, nor has he finalized his season-opening lineup. There is nonetheless already a feeling that New York is finally close to having a real club, one that can take the first step toward soccer-world respectability by holding its own among its sibling organizations in the still-young, still lightly regarded American league.

“We are almost there,” Backe said of his team. “Maybe we need one or two more players, but we look strong at each position. People respect us as a team. We can challenge for a title. To be successful in this environment, you need that.”