4:47 pm Mar. 12, 2012
When we left the New York Red Bulls after last year's season-ending loss to the eventual champion Los Angeles Galaxy, we had questions about the team's biggest stars, its depth, and its unfortunate propensity to make terrible mistakes at crucial moments.
Sunday's 2012 season-opener, a 2-1 loss to FC Dallas, didn't answer any of them.
Let's start up top with their unquestioned star, striker Thierry Henry. In form following an off-season loan to his glory-days team, Arsenal, Henry looked sharp on Sunday, making repeated runs that left Dallas a step behind, just missing a goal on a quickly taken free kick and putting the ball into areas that should have resulted in chances, if not goals.
Yet the Red Bulls did not have a shot on goal in the first 43 minutes of the match.
The problem appears to be a lack of chemistry between Henry and the extremely talented but raw Juan Agudelo. The two had few opportunities to work together last year, when coach Hans Backe seemed unwilling to put Agudelo on the field.
Late in the match, Agudelo was supplemented by newly acquired Kenny Cooper, a large target who has struggled with injuries in recent years, but was once among the foremost scorers in Major League Soccer. Cooper put the Red Bulls' only goal into the net at the 78-minute mark.
But the only striker pairing that has seemed to work truly well with Henry was with Luke Rodgers, the English import, who combined with him last spring to get New York off to a rollicking start. The problem with Rodgers is that he's not allowed in the country right now. A visa issue—the reasons behind it are cloudy, but last week's meeting that was supposed to decided the issue definitively still hasn't—means that his presence for the team is in doubt.
The midfield is similarly talented, featuring the electric Dane Richards and the reliable Joel Lindpere—and similarly wont to underperform. Dax McCarty, acquired in an extremely puzzling deal for Dwayne De Rosario last year just weeks after the Red Bulls brought in De Rosario to much fanfare, barely figured in Sunday's action, and Teemu Tainio, a bright spot last year, struggled.
Rafa Marquez, the big-ticket item who has failed miserably in New York thus far, missed Sunday to complete a suspension that dates back to last year's playoffs.
As for the defense, Tim Ream is gone to Bolton, in England's Premier League. So the center backs are now Stephen Keel, who stepped in for Marquez at center back last year, but has failed to stick in the league so far, and Markus Holgersson, who the Red Bulls hope will provide a physicality missing from Ream's game. Wilman Conde was also signed to provide that at center back, but the oft-injured Conde is, once again, injured. Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller are on the defensive wings, but Solli is brittle, and Miller tends to make costly errors—the way he did in the 61st minute, with a terrible back-pass that led to Dallas' second goal.
One area that bedeviled the Red Bulls for much of last season was in goal, where Bouna Condoul and Greg Sutton failed. Frank Rost provided stability when signed midseason, but Rost is gone again. The team is relying on youthful Ryan Meara and Jeremy Vuolo, and Meara performed admirably on Sunday, keeping New York in the match.
If there's a silver lining here it's that no one figures the Red Bulls will do much of anything this year, by contrast with last year's spectacularly dashed early-season expectations.
There's nowhere to go but up, however belatedly.