(Okay, so it took me a few days longer than normal, but I have finally had some time to sit down and write about the Red Bulls’ season opener. Here is my take on the team’s 2-0 win against Columbus last Saturday.)
What sort of influence would Juan Carlos Osorio have? That was the first question to consider when the 2008 Red Bulls took the field on Saturday. The questions about what new players he will bring in remains largely unanswered (and may not be answered until the summer), but Osorio had his chance last Saturday to give Red Bulls fans a glimpse of the type of impact he could have on what is in many ways the same team that Bruce Arena rode through a roller-coaster of underachievement in 2007.
We won’t be able to measure the new coach’s impact until season’s end but what we saw on Saturday, inspired performances from several players who came into the season with question marks, is a good sign that the team’s 11th coach has already made a strong impact on the Red Bulls.
You had Seth Stammler, looking comfortable and confident as a midfield bulldog after spending last season shuffling between midfield and defense. You had Kevin Goldthwaite, whose confidence had hit rock-bottom last season even before a season-ending knee injury, looking like an all-star defender. You also had Chris Leitch, who endured the worst stretch of his career late last season before being benched, looking like the confident veteran who gave the MetroStars some quality seasons.
As promising as those individual performances were, they did not hide the fact that the team still has plenty of needs to address before it can be taken seriously as a strong contender.
Yes, the club was missing Jozy Altidore, Dane Richards and Hunter Freeman, three of the team’s better players in 2007, but their absences didn’t explain away the voids in the team’s current roster.
The back-line was strong against a Columbus attack that just didn’t have much in the way of good attacking ideas, but Jeff Parke’s silly second yellow card and subsequent ejection highlighted the team’s continued need for a dependable leader in central defense. Parke has the talent, that has never been a doubt, but his mental lapses have been an issue throughout his career and are what keep him from being an all star.
The central midfield proved to be an issue once again as Sinisa Ubiparipovic followed up a strong 25-30 minutes with 15 minutes that were so shaky that Osorio pulled him at halftime. With no other options on the bench for central midfield, Osorio was forced to move Van Den Bergh into central midfield, where he just doesn’t win enough balls to be effective (though he put in some hard work there before sliding into a left back role following Parke’s red card).
Will the team be able to address these pressing needs before the April 15 transfer deadline? Scottish defender Chris Innes looks like a very good possibility to fill the need for a central defender but the team’s top defensive midfield target, Lider Marmol, doesnt’ look like he will reach an agreement with MLS, making the chances of him becoming a Red Bull remote.
What will Osorio do? He is desperate to add at least one or two players within the next month, including some potential post-transfer window signings, but his dreams of a swoop for his most coveted transfer targets appears unlikely.
And while there are plenty of issues for the Red Bulls to address, there were also plenty of positives to take away from the first game, including the performance by the one player Osorio has transferred into the team, Colombian striker Oscar Echeverry. The popular notion in some circles is that Echeverry troubles defense with pace (which is a fancy British way of saying speed for those keeping score at home). Calling Echeverry a player who relies on speed is misleading.
Echeverry is quick and deceptively strong, but above all he is shifty. His ability to maneuver in one-on-one situations using strength and shiftiness is his greatest attribute, not his speed. That isn’t to say he is slow but there are players who rely on speed, players who are shifty and players who are both. Echeverry is shifty/strong and a player who should work well with either Juan Pablo Angel or Jozy Altidore because he passes very well.
Lastly, goalkeeper Jon Conway deserves kudos for his performance on Saturday. He only had a few difficult shots to deal with but his command in the area and confidence in dealing with the few situations that came his way were impressive. There has been an air of confidence this year that you didn’t necessarily get from Conway in year’s past. Having a new contract and being the undisputed No. 1 goalkeeper for the first time in his career could lead to a breakout season for Conway.
Here are my player grades for the Red Bulls:
Jon Conway- 7- Steady all night
Kevin Goldthwaite- 8- Broke up countless attacks and scored a goal.
Jeff Parke- 5- On his way to a solid performance before two clumsy challenges led to his ejection.
Chris Leitch- 7- Steady and experienced, Leitch looked as good as he has in two years.
Dave Van Den Bergh- 8- Scored the opening goal, played three positions well, made a strong case for being kept around and for starting.
Luke Sassano- 6- Had some rookie struggles but his defensive work on the flanks merits recognition.
Claudio Reyna- 6- Started off poorly but came on stronger later in the match, providing an outlet for teammates and helping to keep possession.
Seth Stammler- 7- Put in some serious work all over the field, particularly in the second half as he tried to cover for the loss of Parke.
Sinisa Ubiparipovic- 5- Showed great promise early on but fatigue set in quickly and he lost his passing touch quickly.
Juan Pablo Angel- 7- Played with a hamstring injury but still put in tough work and helped create second goal. Missed penalty kick.
Oscar Echeverry- 7- Drew penalty and proved to be a handful all night.
Danleigh Borman- 4- Serious case of rookie jitters. He tends to do that, will either play extremely well or let nerves get the better of him. Has promise.
Share your thoughts on my player ratings, or any other topic I covered, in the comments section below.