Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
With one piece of hardware finally in their trophy cabinet, the New York Red Bulls are looking to add several more and with largely the same team that won last season’s Supporters’ Shield.
Continuity was the word most often repeated by the Red Bulls’ brass during an offseason in which they made very few moves, an oddity considering the team’s tumultuous past. A tight salary cap situation and a belief from within that New York had enough to build on their 2013 successes were the reasons for that, but players with potential to be starters were added to the fray.
Bobby Convey, Richard Eckersley and Spanish centerback Armando were brought on by Petke to help bolster competition within the squad, one that disposed of regulars like Fabian Espindola and Markus Holgersson but still features star striker Thierry Henry and midfield ace Tim Cahill.
Petke will need to figure out which players, old and new, best comprise a balanced starting lineup that will see some tactical changes as well as recapture the same type of magic that was so effective in his rookie year in 2013.
The Red Bulls are playing in a much deeper Eastern Conference these days, but still possess the talent to make a deep push into the postseason and claim the highly-coveted MLS Cup trophy.
Here is a closer look at the 2014 New York Red Bulls:
NEW YORK RED BULLS SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 17-9-8, 59 points (First in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Richard Eckersley, Bobby Convey, Armando
KEY LOSSES: Fabian Espindola, Markus Holgersson, Brandon Barklage, David Carney, Heath Pearce
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Bobby Convey. Each of the three players added by the Red Bulls could become starters this season, but Convey is the most intriguing one. Not only can he potentially start at two different spots (left back and left midfield), but his impact on the locker room is also something that bears watching given his history with the previous MLS clubs he’s been on.
PRESSURE IS ON: Peguy Luyindula. The veteran forward impressed late last season playing out of position in central midfield, and it was an experiment that paid dividends for the Red Bulls. New York was able to hold onto possession better and create more from the run of play with Luyindula pulling the strings behind the two forwards, and Petke has said he sees the Frenchman as more of a midfielder going into this season. If the 34-year-old Luyindula can perform to expectations and stay healthy, the Red Bulls will not need to smash their robust piggy bank for a third Designated Player this summer. If he does not, the club could struggle offensively and will likely have to dig into their funds to add a true playmaking midfielder.
For the first time in what seems like ever, the Red Bulls kept in tact most of the core of their team from the prior season. There was no major overhaul and no real controversy during the offseason (aside from a pair or minor blemishes late in the preseason), a strange occurrence for a team that is no stranger to finding itself in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Petke is back and so too are many of the same players who helped the Red Bulls win the Supporters’ Shield and end their well-documented trophy-less drought in 2013. Keeping that nucleus was indeed the Red Bulls’ gameplan going into the offseason, and it is one that they have executed to a tee.
“I’m not about to disrupt the quality that I think we have in this team and the chemistry we’ve built up over a year,” said Petke.
The problem, however, lies in that a tight salary cap situation restricted New York from adding any major pieces and the Eastern Conference as a whole got substantially better. Toronto FC is now a star-studded squad with the likes of Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar. The Philadelphia Union have transformed into a more skillful team with the additions of midfielders Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu and Cristian Maidana. Even lowly D.C. United have revamped their roster with some nice pieces.
Have the Red Bulls done enough to fight the rest of the East off? Petke and his staff think so, especially with the tinkering they have done to the lineup and tactics. No, the club is not going to stray away from old reliable, the 4-4-2 formation that they deployed effectively en route to claiming some hardware last year. But there will be some minor changes to the setup, such as Luyindula seeing more time in a central midfield role and Cahill playing closer to goal.
Another issue the club will have to deal with is the amount of games it will play this year. The Red Bulls are set to partake in the regular season, CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup, and that will force Petke into finding the right moments when to rest and play his aging starters.
That is especially the case for Henry, the team captain who will turn 37 in August.
“He definitely falls into a category of somebody I need to sit down with and figure things out for all the competitions we have and all that travel that’s going to entail,” said Petke. “(Last) year was very tough for me to take him off the field because of what he brings.”
All that said, the Red Bulls are a talented enough side that they should compete for an MLS Cup. The playoffs have been their biggest hurdle, but having a hungry Henry in the final year of his contract and a team with some togetherness on and off the field should help the Red Bulls in their quest to finally lift an MLS Cup trophy.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP