By Talha Zaheer
2008 RECAP: A magical run at the end of the season almost culminated in the New York Red Bulls winning their first ever Major League Soccer Cup. Despite acquitting themselves admirably in the final at the Home Depot Center, they were unable to overcome the Columbus Crew. As the lowest seed in the playoff bracket they weren’t expected to make it far, especially as they had little momentum heading into the playoffs, winning only three out of the 10 games to end the regular season. Reveling in their underdog status, the Red Bulls built on sound defensive performances to upset the odds. Eventually they ran out of steam against the overwhelming favorites from Columbus. In reaching their first ever MLS Cup final and conquering their first Western Conference title, theirs was a season to remember.
Along the way, they clinically dispatched the Houston Dynamo in the first round to provide the upset of the year. Considering the retirement of Claudio Reyna and the departure of Jozy Altidore for the sunny shores of the Mediterranean at Villareal, the Red Bulls had to overcome the loss of two of their best players in the middle of the season. In their wake, fringe players made the step up and staked their claim for regular football. Most notably 'keeper Danny Cepero, deputizing for the suspended Jon Conway, surpassed all expectations with his superlative displays leading up to the MLS cup final. Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio had the confidence to tinker with his lineup without necessarily weakening it. Dave Van der bergh was handed added responsibility and excelled on the left wing: his goal scoring contribution was integral to the team's success.
Prior to that final loss, New York was stripped of two of its defensive pillars through illegal substance abuse. Defender Jeff Parke and Conway became the first two MLS players to violate the league's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Policy by testing positive for androstatriendione (ATD) and boldenone metabolites, performance enhancing substances. The league gave each a 10 game suspension and fined each 10% of his salary.
DEPARTURES: There have been major casualties to the squad that started last season, as Osorio continues his rebuilding program. This seasons’ team sheet will not include the likes of Claudio Reyna, Jozy Altidore, or Dave van der Bergh, whose 8 goal contribution to the team last season will be sorely missed. Claudio Reyna decided to hang up his boots in July so the Red Bulls were deprived of his invention for most of last season. As Reyna was deciding against prolonging his swansong, Jozy Altidore was busy orchestrating a move to UEFA Champions League contenders Villarreal.
The assuring presence of experienced duo Chris Leitch and Jeff Parke will also need replacement. Leitch was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes for allocation money and an international spot. Parke was taken by Seattle Sounders FC in the expansion draft, but his contract with MLS has expired and he is pursuing options abroad. Mike Magee’s superb substitute cameo appearances will no longer feature in a Red Bull shirt either, as the attacker was traded to the Los Angeles Galaxy. The promising Diego Jimenez also decided to part ways with New York and given his assured displays during the playoffs, he is not someone the Red Bulls wanted to see the back of. He will suit up for Mexican side Tecos as his loan expired.
Furthermore, the club also waived defender Gabriel Cichero, midfielder Gordon Kljestan, and forward Sainey Touray.
ARRIVALS: There has been an emphasis on pace in the majority of new signings for the Red Bulls. Dominic Oduro made the journey to Giants Stadium as part of the exchange that saw Dave van der Bergh head in the opposite direction to FC Dallas. Meanwhile, a tailor-made replacement for van der Bergh in Khano Smith was acquired from Seattle Sounders. Khano, blessed with explosive pace and a considerable left foot, should make himself home on the left wing. Mid-season acquisition Macoumba Kandji is also brimming with pace, as is SuperDraft pick Jeremy Hall.
The Red Bulls also picked Babajide Ogunbiyi, Jack Traynor, and Nick Zimmerman at the MLS SuperDraft with the former yet to sign a contract with the MLS. The experienced Mike Petke returns to New York to bolster the defense and will hope to rekindle the form that saw him lift the MLS cup with DC United earlier in his career.
Colombian Osorio has been using his South American connections to bolster the defense. Left back Alfredo Pacheco has signed on loan from CD FAS. Others have been linked, as the coach constructs a new defense.
LIKELY STARTING LINEUP:
GK - Danny Cepero
D - Alfredo Pacheco
D - Kevin Goldwaithe
D - Mike Petke
D - Jeremy Hall
M -Seth Stammler
M - Luke Sassano
M - Jorge Rojas
M - Khano Smith
M - Dane Richards
F - Juan Pablo Angel
Goal Keepers: Jon Conway and Terry Boss.
Defenders: Andrew Boyens and Carlos Mendes
Midfielders: Danleigh Borman, Matthew Mbuta, Michael Palacio, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, and Juan Pietravallo.
Forwards: John Wolyniec, Macoumba Kandji, Dominic Oduro, and Oscar Echeverry.
SEASON OUTLOOK: The flexibility of options available to Osorio makes it difficult to determine which formation and personnel he will prefer once March 19 rolls around. With the injection of youth and pace in the squad, the team is likely to have an effective counter attack. Whether a swashbuckling attacking philosophy will be pursued that accommodates Rojas, Oduro, Richards, Smith, and Angel in the same lineup remains to be seen – Mbuta and Kandji waiting in the wings are no slouches either. He could just as easily opt to play with two defensive midfielders. This multitude of possible formations will ensure sleepless nights for many an opposing tactician. However, these options may just as well be their undoing as well as they continue to strive for greater consistency.
As runners up of the MLS Cup, the Red bulls have qualified for the CONCACAF Champions' League. Challenging on three fronts will see them tread on uncharted territory- they will also be involved in the U.S. Open Cup. This will test the depth of a squad already reeling from key departures. The defense looks decidedly short handed, a problem Osorio has already identified and hopes to address before the season commences.
While their preseason form in Argentina has been impressive, it will take them more time before they develop the sort of understanding that captivates fans and leaves opponents ball watching. On paper the Red Bulls may look weaker than last season, but any team discounting them will do so at their own peril. After all, no one expected them to reach the MLS title decider last season either. Expect them to be especially dangerous on the road, where they may exploit the electric pace at their disposal to devastating effect. If Osorio can discover his best team and garner more consistency from his players, another trip to the playoffs is on the cards.
Did You Know? New York's advancement to the MLS Cup final was so unexpected, that ESPN pundit Alexi Lalas swore to shotgun a can of Red Bull on national television if they made it. He swallowed his pride, and the energy drink, at halftime of the MLS Cup Final. Watch a video of his preparations for the public humiliation, exclusive to Goal.com.
Talha Zaheer is a contributor to Goal.com