The 17th MLS season got underway last Saturday, March 10, and the hope is that this may be the year that a New York franchise brings the MLS Cup here. Seventeen seasons without a championship team for the New York/New Jersey area put much pressure on the New York Red Bulls – one of the richest MLS franchises and the first New York area soccer team with its own soccer specific stadium in Red Bull Arena.
The Red Bulls lost its season opener, 2-1, at FC Dallas Stadium in an NBC televised game with a sellout crowd of 20, 906 last Sunday afternoon, and although it may be foolhardy to speculate on the Red Bulls’ chances of reaching the MLS Cup final after only one game, a contest certainly is enough to spark questions about aspects of the team that will have a direct impact on a successful season.
New York’s defense was a major worry last year during a season in which the Red Bulls drew a record number of games before backing into the playoff via a wild card berth. It was this Dallas team that the New Yorkers knocked out of the 2011 playoffs to advance to the short-lived first round series versus eventual champion Los Angeles Galaxy.
In this season opener, it seemed as though the defense continued its error-filled ways as two defensive mistakes led to the Red Bulls’ downfall. Dallas’ Zach Lloyd’s 11th minute goal came when new defender Markus Holgersson failed to clear the ball from the goalmouth; the Swedish Holgersson was brought in to shore up a defensive unit that lost stalwart defender Tim Ream to Bolton of the English Premier League. Ricardo Villar’s 61st minute goal was the result of another defensive error.
Also added to the defensive lineup was Colombian Wilma Conde, a past MLS all-star player with the Chicago Fire, but Conde seems injury prone and was absent from the game. Second-year player Stephen Keel made a credible showing teamed at central defense with Holgersson and left defenseman Roy Miller and Soli complete the starting defense, which, except for Holgersson, were there last year. This defense should have done a much better job at protecting newcomer goalkeeper Ryan Meara, who was one of the bright spots in the game. Another bad omen for New York is Mexican international defender Rafael Marquez, who was suspended for the first two games of this season as a result of an incident at Red Bull Arena in the last game there versus the Galaxy. Will Marquez continue to find ways to be absent from the defense? Will Conde stay healthy throughout the season? How improved, really, is Keel?
New York’s midfield lacks creativity. There are too many defensive journeymen and not enough skill to maintain possession for substantial periods and dictate the tempo in the game. Estonian Joel Lindpere and Jamaican international Dane Richards manned the flanks, while Dax McCarty and Teemu Tainio were the central tandem that were supposed to control the middle of the pitch, which did not happen. Mc Carty and Tainio are defensive players who lack the necessary creativity to be effective schemers; Lindpere is a tireless worker and Richards, coming off his most productive year as a professional, uses his speed effectively to get behind defenses. The Red Bulls need a creative midfielder in the middle of the park who can spray accurately weighted and timely passes to dissect defenses.
Thierry Henry, who adds much scoring experience to the frontline, and Juan Agudelo started for New York, but it took new acquisition Kenny Cooper, a veteran MLS forward, to put New York on the score sheet late in the contest. A more effective midfield would have solved some of New York’s scoring problems. The talented Agudelo came into the league last year with much promise; he did exceptionally well for the U.S. national team last year, but Red Bulls coach Hans Backe has slowed his progress by using the talented player sparingly. Agudelo should have been much further ahead in his development had he been credited with the playing time that he deserved.
The start of the season is a crucial phase for any team and it is important that the New York Red Bulls pick up early wins, because losing streaks are easy develop and hard to stop, as was evident last season. There are some bright spots in the 2012 version of the New York Red Bulls, but more worrying thoughts. One good thing – it’s only one game.
In other MLS season openers last Saturday, hosts and defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy was defeated by Real Salt lake, 3-1. Javier Morales scored for Real Salt Lake in the 80th minute after an own-goal by Los Angeles’ Sean Franklin had neutralized Galaxy’s Edson Buddle’s earlier tally that put the Galaxy ahead, 1-0. Fabian Espindola also scored for Real Salt Lake.
The Vancouver Whitecaps hosted MLS newcomers Montreal Impact, which found out that its MLS debut wasn’t going to be easy; Sebastian Le Toux and Camilo helped the Whitecaps to a 2-0 win; the Colorado Rapids also gave Columbus Crew a torrid reception with a 2-0 home victory. The Rapids goals came from Drew Moor and Quincy Amarikwa; the win was the first for new Rapids Coach Oscar Pareja. Sporting Kansas City went to DC United and sneaked out with a 1-0 victory on C.J. Sapong’s injury time tally; while Chris Wondolowski’s goal held up to carry host San Jose Earthquakes to a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution. On Sunday, the Houston Dynamo beat hosts Chivas USA, 1-0.