As the new MLS season kicks off in just five days' time, here's a totally subjective list of ten ways the New York Red Bulls can improve this season -- a few on the pitch, some off the field, and a couple for those of us in the stands.
1)When the team gets chances, they must take advantage. The Red Bulls improved significantly at the back last season, but didn't make nearly the same strides in attack. This was not usually for lack of chances, although there were several games in mid-summer when the Red Bulls looked utterly hopeless going forward (at home against DC United and away to the Columbus Crew come to mind). For the most part, New York has enough creativity and attacking ability in the team and that showed for much of last season. However, there were a number of occasions when the team did not capitalize on the chances they created; away to San Jose in the playoffs and Chicago in the regular season come to mind in particular. There's no way any team will be able to put away all of the chances they create, but more opportunities need to end up in the back of the net.
2)Fans outside of the South Ward need to get behind the team -- vocally. I sat in the Upper Bowl on the east side of the stadium for most of last season, which is not far from the away section. The visiting fans were making more noise than those of us in that area of the stadium much too often. Not everybody comes to Red Bull Arena to yell, shout, or sing, of course, but a good atmosphere makes attending games more enjoyable and may influence referees into favoring the Red Bulls.
3)The Red Bulls must find a central playmaker. This has been the club's biggest problem for several years now, and is a pretty obvious one as well. New York has a tremendously talented central midfield, but there is no one player who dictates the tempo and plays killer balls consistently.
Many fans had hoped that New York would bring in a #10 using the Designated Player spot vacated by Juan Pablo Ángel. So far, at least, that has not been the case, although there is a chance that the Red Bulls could sign such a player during the European transfer window this summer. If this does not happen, someone in the current squad must step up to the plate. Matt Kassel looks like an exciting prospect, but can't be expected to dictate play for a top-flight team yet. Perhaps Joel Lindpere's final ball will improve after playing in a more advanced midfield role during pre-season, or maybe Tony Tchani's spectacular improvement through 2010 will continue and he'll be able to command the center of the park. Whomever it is, either someone has to claim that spot or the Red Bulls have to find a player in the transfer market to fill this gaping hole.
4)Every player must work as hard as Joel Lindpere does. I'm not going to mention any names, but we all know that some players don't pull their weight when it comes to closing down the opposition and tracking runs. The players don't all receive huge pay packets, but there is no excuse for a lack of commitment. Achieving success is hard, but made doubly difficult when some players are not completely focused on winning the game at hand; a lack of concentration and drive can let other teams back into a game or allow them to take points away from us. Lindpere far from the only committed player -- most of them are most of the time -- but he is the gold standard, and the level of work-rate against which others should be measured.
5)Bring a friend, or two, or five, to a game. It's an unfortunate fact that we don't fill the seats at Red Bull Arena frequently, and the game experience would be better for everyone if we could. The best way to do this is to show people how much fun it is supporting the team and watching live soccer. Invite them out once, and they could become more frequent visitors and eventually hard-core fans. The responsibility for filling Red Bull Arena doesn't only lie with the club, it's also important that those of us who sit in the stands try to do our part.6)The left back slot needs to be filled. The second most obvious hole in the Red Bulls team in 2010 was on the far left side of the defense, and it is to Tim Ream's great credit that he enjoyed such a fantastic rookie season in spite of this clear deficiency. Whether it is an existing member of the team stepping up to the task or if we bring in a new player, someone needs to make that place his own. Otherwise, the whole team may pay for that weak link.
7)Development should begin in the area east of Red Bull Arena. The abandoned lots around the stadium are an eyesore, and a waste of space. Until there is commercial development for that land, the club should see if it can get the area smoothed over and planted with grass so people can play some football before the games. Almost every football fan has played or still does, and it would be a nice way to bring the community together outside of the stadium. This could be difficult as Red Bull does not own that land, but perhaps they can lobby for some kind of improvements (which would also be in the best interests of the City of Harrison).
8)Take all competitions seriously. Our US Open Cup run last season was great fun -- the football was good, the tickets were cheap for great seats, and the Red Bulls did well during the qualifiers. It was fun, that is, until we got to the Third Round and crashed out to the Harrisburg City Islanders. It was a game that we never should have lost; the team Hans Backe sent out were probably good enough to win, but the Islanders were (apparently, since I only know one RBNY fan who took the trip) extremely up for it.
Unfortunately, Backe also played a number of guys out of position and didn't have much firepower to bring off the bench late in the game. The lesson here? We have yet to win a significant trophy in the sixteen-year history of this club, so we can't let a competition slip through our fingers by lack of focus, commitment, and interest. Once we get one piece of silverware in the trophy cabinet (hopefully we have one somewhere), future success will be much easier.
9)The Harrison PATH station should be renovated. The facilities there are simply not adequate to cope with the number of people using that facility. I usually stick around for fifteen to twenty minutes after games and still have to wait in line for ten to fifteen minutes before getting on the platform. The wait is not a big deal, but the general fan experience will be much better if getting back to the train was easier -- hopefully it will also stop people from leaving early.
10)We need a club song. Is this cliché? Of course! However, it's about creating a common identity, which is important for the team, the club, and the fans. Something we can sing or play before and after games, a song that we'll whistle or hum on the train, something that will stick in our heads and remind us of the the team and the friendly confines of Red Bull Arena. No Lady Gaga, no Justin Bieber, none of that garbage, please. But something inspiring, easy to sing, and memorable. We have a great team, a beautiful stadium, and great fans. Let's build a club culture.