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NO DOWN TIME

The current off-season may be down time for soccer fans but certainly not for MLS executives, who see the off-season as the most important time of the year. It’s the time when deals are made to re-build and strengthen their squads and coaching staffs, so, with the dawn of the New Year upon us, MLS executives are hard at work at staffing their teams.

The 18th MLS season kicks off on Saturday, March 2, 2013, the earliest start for an MLS campaign, and teams are busy making player-deals. The New York Red Bulls is definitely a team in a total rebuilding mode as changes were made at just about every level of the organization; there are new faces in the administration and coaching personnel, while many new faces will run the turf at Red Bull Arena in just under three months.

The Red Bulls high-level executives brought in former Olympic Lyon (France), Liverpool (England) and Aston Villa (England) coach, Frenchman Gerard Houllier, to take charge of all aspect of Red Bulls soccer. Houllier recently was named Global Sporting Director; he has given the responsibility of player and coach acquisitions to Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh, a former European (UEFA) instructor from Scotland and a new face in the Red Bulls administration. The new pair of executives will soon decide on the club’s next head coach and staff. Gone is head coach Hans Backe and his assistants, except Mike Petke, now interim coach.

The new administration has been busy with player acquisitions and releases in an effort to rebuild the team that has underachieved - a burden the New York Red Bulls inherited, and has been unable to shake, from its predecessor and first New York MLS franchise, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (1996-05). The Red Bulls (2006), unable to rid the franchise of the ‘underachiever’ label in its seven years of existence, seems determined now to do so.

The club has acquired a number of new players with successful experience in MLS. Among the players are proven MLS defenders Jamison Olave (Chivas USA) and Kosuke Kimura (Portland, Colorado) and Digao (Brazil). These defensemen will team with re-signed defenders Connor Lade and Brandon Barklage, last season’s Red Bulls Defender of the Year Marcus Holgersson, Colombian Wilma Conde, Costa Rican Roy Miller and American Heath Pearce; this group could be a formidable unit ahead of starting net-minder Louis Robles and re-signed sophomore goal keeper Ryan Meara. Santiago Castano will also shore up the Red Bulls goal keeping position. The most notable absence from the defense is Mexican international Rafael Marquez, who was not re-signed.

In the midfield, former Brazilian World Cup (2006) midfielder Juninho, acquired from Brazilian club Vasco da Gama, will play the role of schemer, an anemic position the past seven years; Juninho, who also played for Houllier at Olympic Lyon, is a “tremendous player and a professional on and off the field,” said Roxburgh. The Brazilian will be surrounded in midfield by hard-working Estonian Joel Lindpere and American Dax Mc Carty, along with Aussie Tim Cahill, Englishman Lloyd Sam and Victor Palsson.

The Red Bulls still have offensive power in Frenchman Thierry Henry, who was voted the team’s 2012 MVP, and Kenny Cooper, the team’s 2012 Newcomer of the Year. The pair will be joined by Josue Martinez, acquired from Philadelphia in exchange for Sebastien Le Toux. Martinez is a 22-year-old with 16 international appearances for Costa Rica. Also new to the offensive set up is MLS veteran Fabian Espindola, acquired from Real Salt Lake and Amando Moreno.

The Red Bulls open the new season on Sunday, March 3rd at Portland Timbers and hosts its first game on Saturday, March 16th versus Eastern Conference rival DC United. In the preseason, the Red Bulls will play in the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson, Arizona, from Feb. 13-23, 2013. Other teams in this pre-season, round robin tournament along with host FC Tucson are the New England Revolution, Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders FC.

MLS trades

In other MLS player trades, Colorado Rapids sent Jamaican international Omar Cummings to the Houston Dynamo and Conor Casey to the Philadelphia Union; meanwhile American international Edson Buddle went from Los Angeles Galaxy to the Rapids; Toronto FC traded Jamaican international Ryan Johnson to Portland. Toronto also picked a player many think is the best youngster available with the selection of 21-year-old Togolese-born American youth international and central defender Gale Agbossoumonde. The defender played for the U.S. U-17, U-20 and senior teams and was the 2010 U.S. young male player of the year. Toronto hopes to pair Agbossoumonde with former U.S. international Danny Califf, acquired from Chivas USA in the recent MLS re-entry draft.

Sporting Kansas City signed Argentine striker Claudio Bieler as its designated player; he scored 20 goals in 36 games for LDU Quito in Ecuador. Kansas City will also field a women’s team, FC Kansas City, in the eight-team National Women’s Soccer League, set to start in the spring. Other women’s teams in the new league are the Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns FC, Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit, Western New York Flash and Seattle.

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