Each month, your Once a Metro staff, along with Red Bulls writers from around the web, will take on a monthly "big question" facing the Red Bulls. When we start getting going, you'l be able to view them all here.
This month we're joined by Empire of Soccer's Dave Martinez and Howard Megdal from Capital New York. The question: What are realistic expectations for the Red Bulls this season?
First up, our own Dan Ferris...
Great expectations? Not so fast...
Aside from the Colorado Rapids winning MLS Cup in 2010, there have been few surprises the past couple of seasons in Major League Soccer. The LA Galaxy has been consistently good, and Toronto FC consistently bad. Expansion teams have seen their ups and downs, and no one can quite put their finger on how all of the league rules work in terms of salary cap and player signings. Red Bull fans, whether they liked it or not, knew pretty much what to expect during Hans Backe's three-year tenure as head coach: an underutilized bench, a maddening tendency for the team to concede early goals, more Scandinavian players than any other team in the league's short history, and so on. Most importantly, fans could expect that each year the Red Bulls would make the playoffs, usually by too close of a margin for comfort in a generally mediocre Eastern Conference, only to lose every single playoff series they played in, never making it beyond the first round. Which brings us to 2013...
The roster has been overhauled. The coaching staff and front office have completely changed. Big things will always be expected from a team with the payroll and profile that New York currently has, but this new look Red Bulls may still struggle with some all-too-familiar challenges.
Fans should expect:
... a slow start. Playing away against Portland and San Jose is no easy task, especially for a rebuilt team with a first year coach. In addition to the west coast trip, New York plays five of its first eight games on the road, and even at Red Bull Arena will face challenges from Eastern Conference rivals DC United and Philadelphia as well as Sporting Kansas City. The defense in particular will be challenged immediately to gel as a unit. New center back Jámison Olave is coming off an injury plagued second half of 2012, but with Heath Pearce next to him (either centrally or outside) and Dax McCarty just ahead of him, the defense should come together and eventually be a serious challenge for most teams to break down.
... Mike Petke to make it through as head coach at least through the end of this season. Will there be bumps along the way? Yes. Will Petke's decision making come under question? If you're familiar with the Red Bulls fan base, then that's an obvious answer as well. But this team has too much talent to struggle so badly that it costs Petke his job. One other thing to look for with Petke will be a refreshingly more serious approach to the Open Cup.
... the Red Bulls to make the playoffs at the end of the year, only to lose in the first round. After three straight years of first round elimination, what else would you expect? Then again, anything is possible in the MLS playoffs and expectations can quickly go right out the window - just ask the Colorado Rapids.
Howard Megdal, Capital New York...
Isn't that what's spectacular about the New York Red Bulls? All things are possible, for good and for ill, virtually every year.
They empoly the best scorer in the league (apologies to Wondo), an enviable midfield trio of Cahill, Juninho and Dax McCarty with seemingly complementary skills, a former Defensive Player of the year to anchor a deep set of defenders, and a strong goalkeeper backed up by one who was on pace to challenge Rookie of the Year before his injury. They are unstoppable.
But also: their only real scoring threat will be 36 in August and suffers from regular, nagging injuries, Cahill did little last season, Juninho is 38 and planning his retirement already, McCarty never played a full season prior to last year, they're an injury to Heath Pearce or preference of Petke away from the Roy Miller Experience, and that backup goalkeeper is still injured, meaning our current fallback plan there is a 17-year-old. They're doomed.
At the risk of looking like Charlie Brown about to kick that lesser football, I have a feeling the first paragraph will be closer to the mark. There have been too many seasons where all goes awry; maybe I'm just putting too much faith into the karmic value of not seeing a smiling Rafa Marquez after losses. But I think the Red Bulls will start slow, come on strong, and finish near the top.
Will there be hardware? I don't know. I'll just be happy if they actually try to win the U.S. Open Cup, and Henry is healthy enough that we all get to watch a world-class player at a world-class arena all year long. There are worse ways to spend a summer; we all remember them.
Matt Coyne, Once a Metro...
It's the MLS Cup.
Yes, I said "realistic." And yes, I was the one who asked the question in the first place. But hear me out for a minute.
Last year, the LA Galaxy (despite having the best roster on paper, along with our beloved Red Bulls) were the West's 4 seed against the East's 5, with the Houston Dynamo made the playoffs by one point. The 2011 MLS Cup was a bit of a closer affair, with Houston finishing in second in the East, but the two through five seeds were all within three points of each other. In 2010 both MLS Cup finalists, FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids, were fourth and seventh in the league respectively. In 2009, Real Salt Lake won it after making the playoffs thanks to goal differential. In 2008, it was the Red Bulls playing cinderella.
What I'm saying here is that the playoffs are a crapshoot. As long as a team gets in, it's possible to win. And I don't think anyone doubts the Red Bulls have the talent to win a title.
They have Juninho, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry. They've got Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, Heath Pearce and Dax McCarty. If that's not enough talent to limp into the playoffs as the East's fifth place team, I'm not sure what is.
Of course, by my logic, you could say that about any of the 10 team that make the MLS Cup playoffs, which is also true. My season preview that boiled down to "spectacular or terrible" could go for between 10 and 14 other teams.
For that, you can thank parity. And parity is the reason I say MLS Cup.
(That and I'm the eternal sports optimist. The Rangers will turn it around...I swear. And the Yankees aren't THAT old...)
Dave Martinez, Empire of Soccer...
Though the team has undergone a major overhaul, expectations remain as high as ever. Here is what you can anticipate this season:
1. Petke's hiring does not make Austria any more forgiving. This is now a multimillion dollar project entrusted to the hands of a rookie coach. It doesn't mean the team's Austrian Overlords will be looking to lose any more money than they have already with this franchise. The new regime can not allow New York to crash out early in the playoffs or miss them altogether. He will have to, at the very least, match the achievements of his predecessor in order to consider his first year a success.
2. Spreading the wealth. Petke's new system strives to take away the singular minded, Henry-focused offense of the past and distribute the responsibilities amongst a capable cast of characters. Stat sheets won't be dominated by one player or another; Henry, Espindola, Juninho and perhaps even Tim Cahill will take commanding roles on offense.
3. Competition in the back. New York have three capable starting centerbacks; Pearce, Olave and Holgersson. With their salary structure, one won't see their way through the entire season. Right back is equally stacked with Kimura, Barklage and Lade but affordable by comparison. If Pearce is willing to take a fullback slot once more, he would give Miller a good run for his money.
All that said, I expect the team to make the playoffs but not as one of the Eastern Conference's higher seeds. Petke will likely be able to take his team to the heights of Backe (Eastern Conf. semi-final) but no further.