7:15 pm Dec. 29, 2011
When the New York Red Bulls opened their 2011 season last March, fans entering Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. were greeted by four enormous portraits staring at them from the side of a warehouse along Pete Higgins Blvd.
Two of the pictures were of Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls' superstar striker from Arsenal and Barcelona, and Rafa Marquez, the captain of the Mexican national team and a standout midfielder. The two other portraits adorning the warehouse were of 2010 team M.V.P. Joel Lindpere, an Estonian import, attacking midfielder and the team's biggest surprise, and central defender Tim Ream, a young American whose strong rookie season earned him plaudits and multiple national-team call-ups.
These were the assets that promised to make the Red Bulls, who have wallowed in mediocrity since they came into being 15 years ago as the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, into the east coast's answer to the Los Angeles Galaxy—the team, led by David Beckham and Landon Donovan, that has become the class of Major League Soccer.
Things did not go according to plan, as they struggled to make the playoffs (in a league in which 10 of 18 teams do) before finally being eliminated by … Los Angeles.
Now, halfway through the league's off-season, there are indications that New York might begin next season without some, if not all, of their standout players.
In Tim Ream, New York appeared to have a center back it could build around. Instead, Ream regressed a great deal in his sophomore season, particularly early on. He recovered over the latter half of the year, and it looked like he would get at least another season with the Red Bulls to consolidate his skills and rebuild his national team credentials.
Instead, it appears the English Premier League club Bolton Wanderers is set to make Ream its replacement for center back Gary Cahill, who is moving to Chelsea. The price for Ream—a rumored 1.5 million pounds—doesn't give the Red Bulls much money to sign a comparably talented replacement.
As for Marquez, the Red Bulls have denied that he'll be going anywhere. But he played indifferent, criticized his teammates after a game for being unworthy of playing with him (an act for which he was suspended for a game) and got into an altercation at the conclusion of New York's first playoff game against Los Angeles that earned him another suspension. Suddenly getting Marquez and his hefty contract off the team—he is the third-highest-paid player in Major League Soccer—isn't the worst idea. Upper-tier Brazilian side Flamengo has expressed interest in Marquez. And ultimately, the decision is Marquez's to make—he controls his own rights.
Meanwhile, Lindpere has expressed a desire to return to Europe. His strong play, which continued in 2011, will make him a target of plenty of teams when the January transfer window opens. With the low salaries in M.L.S. necessitated by the league's salary cap—Lindpere made just $125,000 in 2011—it shouldn't be too hard for a medium-to-big club to pry him away, or at the very least, make him unhappy about sticking around.
And now Thierry Henry, the world-class, world-famous goal-scorer who was expected to be New York's David Beckham, is reportedly expected to go on loan to Arsenal, the Premier League club that erected a statue of him at its stadium. While the loan would only be for the period until Henry is expected to report to Red Bulls camp in March—Henry would fill a temporary need created by some Arsenal absences for international duty—it is easy to imagine a scenario in which Henry excels, and both player and team decide they wish to renew the union.
This is all shaping up to be bad for business. In Marquez, the Red Bulls believed they had a Mexican icon who would draw fans to Red Bull Arena; instead, he became rage-magnet for disappointed fans. Ream and Lindpere were key parts of the team, and the Red Bulls will be in something pretty close to rebuilding mode if they go.
And then there's Henry, the linchpin. He's a genuine star, and he would be wherever he chose to play his soccer. He's now entering his third season in New York, with nothing to show for it, on a team that appears to going backward.
Fans had better hope he really, really likes living here. Because it's hard to imagine he's going to stick around much longer for the soccer.