By Kyle McCarthy
The consistently disappointing and disheartening history of the Metrostars/New York Red Bulls franchise has seen hope come and go during the course of its 14 years in MLS without leaving any lasting sense of satisfaction.
In distinct contrast to the generally bleak past, the beckoning promise of Red Bull Arena and the dreams of corresponding success in 2010 permits Red Bull fans to aspire to an existence far greater than the trophyless misery currently on offer.
New York will open perhaps the preeminent soccer-specific stadium in the country when it faces Brazilian giants Santos to open the $200+ million facility on March 20. The intimate, 25,189 seat arena will relegate the outmoded, money-sucking carcass known as Giants Stadium to the rear view mirror, handing the Red Bulls a real chance to move toward profitability and engage the attention of current and potential supporters numbed after years of mediocrity.
With yet another new management team in place and a new stadium on the horizon, New York possesses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catapult into relevance in the crowded New York/New Jersey media market and banish the painful memories in one fell swoop.
As one might expect from a pair of Scandinavians dropped in a foreign land, new coach Hans Backe and new sporting director Erik Soler have leaned on familiar players to lay the foundation required to turn those dreams into reality.
Costa Rican international defender Roy Miller arrived on loan from perennial Norwegian champions Rosenborg, while Estonian international midfielder Joel Lindpere inked a deal after spending three years with another Norwegian side in Tromso IL. With Swedish right back Fredric Jonson perhaps on his way after a successful trial spell and Macedonian goalkeeper Oka Nikolov persistently linked as the goalkeeping solution despite FC Dallas' grasp on his discovery rights, the Red Bulls are continuing to exploit Soler's European contacts (and a bumper crop of rookies from the MLS SuperDraft) to reinforce the squad.
The two biggest holes in the starting XI, it appears, still demand reinforcement. Although Miller can play center back and will likely fill that role for the Red Bulls, New York requires an experienced and worldly central defender to steady a perpetually shaky back four. A central midfielder to dictate the cadence in possession and provide a bit of creativity would also aid the Red Bulls in midfield. Lindpere does present one potential option in that role even if Jorge Rojas, another left-winger-cum-attacking-midfielder, recently failed there.
Pondering the potential ins and outs – four players, including 2008 playoff hero Danny Cepero and the red-card prone right back Carlos Johnson, were released on Friday – pales in comparison to perhaps the most influential and sexy choice left to Soler. While it is the squad that should be the focus in light of its relative disrepair, the allure of a second Designated Player continues to captivate audiences on both sides of the pond.
Finding an interested European star willing to join in the summer shouldn't present a problem. Longtime target Thierry Henry remains under contract with Barcelona until 2011, but the buzz surrounding a possible move continues to persist and Henry's fondness for New York City is well documented. Spanish newspapers recently linked Real Madrid legend Raul with a potential move to Red Bull Arena, while other reports have suggested retired AC Milan defender Paolo Maldini and Hamburg midfielder Ze Roberto could also factor into the reckoning as more distant possibilities.
Soler's search for a Designated Player should not rest on importing the largest name, but rather center on signing a player willing to accept the vagaries presented by MLS and display the desire to submit an honest shift time and again despite the drop in standard. The position may not be as important – though one wonders why the Red Bulls have placed such an emphasis on finding a DP striker when Juan Pablo Angel, the occasionally injury-prone option currently in the fold, stands out as the finest finisher in the league by some distance – as the player's desire to compete consistently. The perils of disinterested paycheck seekers in the Lothar Matthaus mold loom in the history books as reminders to the poisonous impact the wrong signing can have on the franchise.
Henry's lingering interest in a U.S. move places him at the top of the wishlist, particularly considering his box-office appeal and his penchant for the spectacular. Other options should fall in well behind Henry with the use of the DP spot a potential option rather than a mandate considering the ensuing salary budget impact and the correlative impact on squad depth. Using the spot simply to acquire another sexy name simply wouldn't advance the cause, particularly considering the significant risk a sour acquisition presents.
All of this talk about imported technical staff members, new stadiums, revamped rosters and potential European star signings breeds expectation in a place where more than a handful of talented coaches, squads and stars have failed in the past. Too often hope yielded to heartbreak in the swamplands outside Giants Stadium.
New York's new regime needs to make the right choices now to ensure those long-harbored dreams are finally realized at its opulent new home. Squandering this unique opportunity with poor decisions may just see the Red Bulls' best shot at overcoming an endless procession of torment fade away and extinguish the remaining hope for the foreseeable future.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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