Red Bulls change team-building tactics, create a paper giant

Thierry Henry, suited up. (Images via joscarfas at flickr)
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Last week's trade bringing Dwayne De Rosario, five-time member of Major League Soccer's Best XI, to the New York Red Bulls did more than simply plug a hole in the team's lineup.

The move took a New York team that had been considered among the favorites in MLS and made it the top team in the league—on paper.

The long-term implications of the deal are, simply, that New York is finished thinking about the long-term. The Red Bulls have never won the league, or even particularly distinguished themselves, since they came into existence. But they are all in for 2011, with uncertain implications for 2012 and beyond.

The deal itself brought De Rosario to New York for defender Danleigh Borman, midfielder Tony Tchani and a first round pick in 2012. Both Borman and Tchani were top picks—Borman seventh overall in 2008, Tchani second overall in 2010. Tchani, in particular, showed flashes of brilliance. But New York General Manager and Sporting Director Erik Soler made no secret of his disdain for building a future New York club.

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“We want to win tonight, next week, every week and the title,” Soler said during a news conference Saturday at Red Bull Arena. “That’s why we’re here. We don’t have time to wait for a guy like Tony Tchani to develop in three years.”

De Rosario's abilities as a playmaking midfielder should is intended to complete the New York attack. His ability to run with the ball and to pass with precision ought to make him a perfect conduit to attackers Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo and Dane Richards. But his age (32) and unhappiness over his contract in Toronto (which led to De Rosario asking for a trade) could complicate matters beyond this season. So does the status of several other Red Bulls.

The general public perception continues to link the rise of the Red Bulls with last summer's high-priced signings of Henry and Rafa Marquez, each by way of Barcelona. But New York had already succeeded in 2011 before either Henry or Marquez came on board, and continued to excel despite Henry's injury struggles and Marquez's inconsistent play.

In fact, two of the biggest contributors to New York's playoff run last year and early success this year have been defender Tim Ream, a 2010 draft pick, and striker Juan Agudelo, a graduate of the team's youth development system.

One fascinating indication of where MLS is in the world soccer ecosystem is the fact that the homegrown young players seem to have swapped roles with the higher-paid foreign celebrities, as was pointed out to me by two of America’s leading soccer writers in conversations about the Red Bulls for this piece.

So, for example, Ream and Agudelo may turn out to be the short-term contributors, rather than the star imports Henry and Marquez.

“"It's more likely that Henry will be with them longer than Ream or Agudelo," said Sports Illustrated's soccer writer Grant Wahl. He noted that Ream and Agudelo are two of the most sought-after MLS properties by European clubs. And unlike the Red Bulls, European clubs are not subject to a salary cap.

Henry and Marquez are not subject to the limits of that cap under MLS's Designated Player rule, which allows teams to add up to three players whose salaries are, in essence, off the books. With the departure of Juan Pablo Angel, that leaves New York with one more DP slot.

Why is this important? Well, De Rosario left Toronto, his hometown club, because the team refused to give him DP money, while another, lesser player earned four times as much as he did through a DP slot. In a famous moment last season, De Rosario mimed signing a check after scoring a goal for Toronto.

He had a point—he scored 15 of Toronto's 33 goals. But he received no guarantees that New York would give him the team's third DP slot after this season.

Keeping that slot open will be key if the team hopes to retain Agudelo, an incredible development considering the 18-year-old has combined for roughly a dozen appearances, total, with both the Red Bulls and the USA national team. But the combination of his sturdy 6'4” build—which allows him to muscle opposing defenders many years older—and poise with the ball could force New York to face a choice between accepting a high-priced offer from a European club, or using their final DP slot to pay Agudelo the wages he could earn overseas.

Jack Bell, the longtime soccer writer for the New York Times, said he isn't sure they will do either.

 

"I think that they will have a steady supply out of their academy, which makes it possible to sell players like Ream and Agudelo," he said. "I do think they will take care of [De Rosario]."

Neither Bell nor Wahl believe that will necessarily be with a massive DP contract. Bell noted that New York holds a two-year contract option on De Rosario, while Wahl pointed out that the demand for his services abroad simply isn't there.

“Remember, he had that trial with Celtic [of the Scottish Premier League] that wasn't approved by MLS,” Wahl said. “That was all about driving up demand. But especially at his age, there isn't a desire for him overseas. He's aware of that, he's not stupid. I can certainly understand where he's coming from, though—he's had so much success in MLS already."

And from a soccer perspective, the trade is a no-brainer, says Bell.

“Look, they gave up two guys that weren't going to play, and draft pick that should be pretty late in the first round,” Bell said. “That's a great deal, even if they're only renting him for the year."

Neither Bell nor Wahl believes the Red Bulls have take one path between developing youth and continuing to add veterans.

"I don't see why you have to choose one or the other,” Wahl said. “Look, the ownership's [Red Bull] frame of reference is [Bundesliga club] Bayern Munich. You can be focused on now, and future, like a Barcelona, like a Bayern Munich." Wahl did add that it needs to be done on a smaller scale, at least for now, with the salary cap restrictions leaving the Red Bulls with a smaller team wage than many European clubs.

Bell pointed out between the great wealth of Red Bull and intelligence of Soler, the future should be bright for New York.

"Soler is a very sharp guy—he's very plugged in,” Bell said. “They don't have one path to winning."

The Red Bulls may finally get there, in other words. Just not necessarily with this group of players.