The New York Red Bulls have the unenviable record of being the only original MLS club to yet win a major trophy, be it the MLS Cup or the US Open Cup or even the Supporters Shield for the best regular-season record. And despite reaching the playoffs in 13 of their 17 seasons, the Red Bulls have advanced beyond the quarterfinals just once in postseason play.
Head coach Mike Petke, who played in defense for the franchise for eight of his 13 MLS seasons, takes over the managerial duties full-time after Hans Backe declined the opportunity to extend his contract. Petke, who was an assistant coach with the team, intimately understands the New York philosophy and should provide a relatively seamless transition as the leader of the staff.
What remains to be seen is how New York responds to the challenge from the rest of the Eastern Conference. While they nabbed a playoff spot last year, they were also just five points from missing out on the postseason. Will Petke be able to instill more consistency in this side now that he is in charge, or will the Red Bulls fall victim to a slump that allows other Eastern Conference challengers to rise up and overtake them in the standings?
The Red Bulls opened their preseason training in Bradenton, Florida. There they faced the Columbus Crew in their first preseason match, getting goals from Ian Christianson and Kenny Cooper in a 2-0 victory. Six days later, New York prevailed over Swedish side Malmo FF, scoring two goals in the final five minutes of play to reverse a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win.
From Florida the Red Bulls traveled to Tucson for the Desert Diamond Cup preseason tournament. In the opening match in Arizona, New York faced Real Salt Lake. After their opposition went up 2-0 within the first three minutes, the Bulls fought back to tie things up and gain a point from the effort. In the next match, it was NY which forfeited an early lead as the New England Revolution rode a second-half surge to a 3-1 victory.
In the final match of group play, the Red Bulls were shut out by the Seattle Sounders 2-0 and relegated to the consolation match in Tucson. Playing a rematch against the Revolution, New York looked even more inept than they had in their first match against the Eastern Conference challenger. By halftime the score was 2-0 New England, which would hold up until the final whistle. The ignominious result left New York with a preseason record of 2-3-1, the early promise of the Florida swing turning ugly in the desert.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
A native of New York, 22-year-old Ryan Meara seized the starting job in goal at the beginning of the 2012 season and acquitted himself well. The second-round pick in the 2012 SuperDraft started 18 of the club’s 34 games and went 9-5-4. Now that Bill Gaudette, signed midway through the summer last year, is no longer with the team Meara should get even more playing time. Luis Robles earned four starts last year, finishing 2-1-1 with 3 goals against, and will serve as the primary backup. Santiago Castano, who turns 18 on April 14, was signed in December as a Red Bulls Homegrown player and will basically provide emergency relief for the position.
The back line has seen some retooling as new players have been brought in to shore up a unit that allowed the third-most goals in the Eastern Conference in 2012. Battling for the center-back spots are incumbent starters Markus Holgersson and midseason acquisition Heath Pearce as well as offseason acquisitions Jamison Olave and Digão. The fullback posts are going to be easier to determine. The team traded in December to get Kosuke Kimura from Portland to man the right side. The left spot has been locked down by Roy Miller, the team’s primary starter at the position each of the past three years and amazingly the longest-tenured player with the Red Bulls. Connor Lade, after a strong rookie season, brings versatility off the bench with the ability to play pretty much anywhere on the pitch besides in goal. Brandon Barklage, a defensive midfielder who spent time in central defense last season, can be pressed into service as necessary.
The midfield gets a jolt from the addition of free-agent signing Juninho, the 38-year-old Brazilian attacking midfielder (not to be confused with the 24-year-old of the same name on the Galaxy roster) who provides a deadly set-piece striker and will help set up his teammates all over the pitch. Dax McCarty should also earn a role in the three-man midfield, ready to enjoy his second full season in New York after a midseason trade in 2011 from DC United. Lloyd Sam, who played in just five games last season before blowing out his posterior cruciate ligament in his knee, returns and could potentially earn a starting role. Tim Cahill could also get a look here, though Petke might choose to move the Australian further forward as well. 2013 draft picks Ian Christianson and Michael Bustamante provide depth at any of the three spots, while the team also nabbed Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander in a pair of winter trades to enrich the position further.
In attack everything centers around French international Thierry Henry, the team’s first Designated Player and the key cog that drives the offense. Despite missing nine games with hamstring and calf injuries in 2012, Henry scored 15 goals for the club to help guide them to the playoffs. In the deal that also brought Olave to the roster, the Red Bulls also acquired Fabian Espindola, who had 35 goals over six years with Real Salt Lake. The Argentinian striker should claim one spot in the attack, while the other will likely go to Cahill. Josue Martinez was brought in from the Philadelphia Union in exchange for Sebastian Le Toux, and Homegrown signing Amando Moreno won’t be rushed onto the pitch too early in his development.
New York will be looking to make a splash at some point this season for another Designated Player to replace the released Mexican defender Rafael Marquez, given the vacant allocation slot. But more important than getting another new superstar will be integrating a ton of new players into the roster in 2013. How well — and how quickly — they manage to mesh as a unit will determine whether the Red Bulls can retain their position in the top five in the East.