Over the next three weeks, Goal.com will provide an all-access look into the New York Red Bulls as they begin their journey for their first title in 17 years.
Despite all of these developments, New York Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe can't shake a growing perception that he couldn't care less about developing American talent.
The criticisms peaked when the New York Red Bulls decided to release promising academy defender Sacir Hot. Upon his release, Hot went on a Twitter rant bashing the club, saying young American talents aren't a priority for the club. Backe found those statements ridiculous.
"There aren't many teams that can look at two guys like Ream, taken in the second round, and Juan, coming from the academy, becoming internationals. Ream is making his debut in Premiership and doing well," Backe explained to Goal.com. "So I think normally that is a pretty good percentage of players going into that kind of level. "
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Backe has a point.
During his tenure with the Red Bulls, the coach has been willing to gamble with American players who he feels can fit into his European style of play. There aren't many coaches who would throw a late draft selection like Ream into their starting XI, or play essentially a 28-year-old rookie in Stephen Keel during a stretch that would determine the team's playoff fate last season.
While the team only started two Americans last season, this year's squad features 12 players born stateside and Backe played four domestic starters in the Red Bulls' opening-day 2-1 loss to FC Dallas. That's more domestic players than Real Salt Lake, a team that both media and fans praise as a well-run organization.
In an ideal situation, Backe would like to have more Americans on the roster but he remarked that it is extremely difficult to trade with MLS sides.
"Even if you hear rumors and clubs are talking to you about trades, in the end of the day, they never go through," Backe stated. "We definitely [want more talented American players]. If we can find guys, home grown guys or players in the U.S. that can be starters or quality players, we will definitely go for that."
Ultimately, Backe and team general manager Erick Soler's priority is to find the best players, American or not, who can fit into the Swedish coach's philosophy of retaining the ball and playing a high backline on defense. Both men understand that in the third year of their partnership, significant improvement must be shown, considering the club's subpar performance last year.
Backe believes the team will be aggressive in trying to finally put an MLS Cup into its empty trophy cabinet. The 60-year-old says it's likely that the team will bring in a third Designated Player, even though he wouldn't talk about any of the names linked with the club. Alessandro Del Piero, Stephen Ireland and Michael Ballack have all been speculated to be joining in June.
"We have a spot still open for the third DP and perhaps something will happen in the summer," Backe said. "We really want to find out which one is the right guy for us."
When asked about Ballack's stated desire of playing for New York, Backe appeared surprised that the 35-year-old former German international remained interested in playing at Red Bull Arena.
"I heard about it but that was closer to Christmas. After Christmas, I haven't heard anything about that," said Backe. "We know what we want and we aren't going to comment about these big names."
Even though Backe believes that the third DP will help the club, he says the biggest lesson that he's learned over the past three years is strength in numbers. Last year, Backe was criticized for his lack of substitutions, but the former Manchester City assistant's bench was constantly thin due to injuries and international obligations. This year will be different.
"The key thing is to have good depth in your roster. If you look at Salt Lake, the Galaxy and look even at their reserve teams, I think that's the key to have success," Backe said.
Backe is also excited to see how the pairing of Thierry Henry and Cooper will perform during the season. He stated that once the two gain an understanding, the pair will be as good as any forward tandem in the league, including the Galaxy's intimidating duo of Robbie Keane and Edson Buddle.
"I think that our guys can match up well. I definitely believe in that," the coach said.
In their 17th season, maybe the Red Bulls can finally fulfill their title expectations.