The visual of number 14, Thierry Henry, standing over the ball in his Red Bulls uniform preparing to take a corner kick will be forever implanted in my memory. The announcement this week of his retirement was not a surprise to me or to many of the Red Bulls faithful. The four and a half years of his tenure were some of the most exciting years in the history of the team, and I believe they helped capture some new fans as well.
The 2014 playoff run, with victories over Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United, as well as a riveting series with our rival, the New England Revolution, was particularly exciting. The Red Bulls played with passion and precision. Thierry Henry created some outstanding scoring chances through his exceptional ability to see the field and make unbelievable passes to his teammates.
Those years, the Henry era, are over now, and the team, as well as MLS overall, is in a state of transition. The league will welcome two new expansion teams and subtract one team, Chivas USA, which changed ownership and is going on a two year hiatus in order to revamp the name and branding of the franchise. Players are changing hands via the expansion draft and free agency.
In the epicenter of all of this activity is New York, the largest market in the league, and the home of two MLS teams for the first time as New York City FC will take the field in 2015 to create a cross town rivalry with the Red Bulls. The task for NYC FC is difficult: building a team from the ground floor. The task for the Red Bulls is also challenging: rebuilding a roster after losing your captain and star player who is essentially irreplaceable.
The Red Bulls have been in this position before, I remember because I have been a fan of the team since the league began in 1996, and the team was known then as the New York / New Jersey MetroStars. The early days of Tab Ramos, Giovanni Savarese, and the "Curse of Caricola" are all so vividly fresh in my mind, it was like it was yesterday, but it was a different league back then, and it was a different world too.
The franchise was at a crossroads for the first time probably back after the 1999 debacle of a season following their failed experiment with German superstar Lothar Matthaus. They bounced back by winning 17 games in the 2000 season and finished first in the East. The next year, both MLS and the world would be changed by the September 11th terror attacks, which resulted in the league suspending the rest of their regular season.
The team was at a crossroads when it became the Red Bulls back in 2006 with Jozy Altidore as their key star and playmaker. The team got eliminated from the playoffs in 2007 also by the rival New England Revolution, and a coaching change resulted in another transition into a defensive oriented team. I recall Jeff Parke being the key defensive fullback, the guy who was comparative to Jamison Olave during the Henry era. The offensive star was Juan Pablo Angel, who had a pretty significant run during his Red Bulls tenure holding many of the scoring records that Bradley Wright-Phillips just broke during the 2014 season.
The Jeff Parke led defense and the Juan Pablo Angel sparked offensive unit resulted in a trip by the Red Bulls to the 2008 MLS Cup Final. Although they lost in the championship game that season, that playoff run was made even more impressive because the Red Bulls made the playoffs as a wild card team. I remember watching the games in the living room of my former living place, ordering a pizza, and watching guys like Dave van den Bergh and, my favorite player back then, John Wolyniec. I used to play soccer as a forward so I have an affinity for scoring players, and I enjoyed watching this tall lanky guy score clutch goals.
The team fell apart again in 2009, and they were at a crossroads then, and they brought in Thierry Henry, in one of the biggest player signings in the history of MLS. The rest, as they say, is history. The Supporters Shield in 2013, and the incredible playoff run of 2014 were hallmarks of the Henry era in Red Bulls history that fans like myself will always have to cherish. The fact that the team suffered so many setbacks, in my opinion, made the past two years take on a heightened significance.
Rebuild or Retool?
The team is now faced with the decision to rebuild the entire roster or just retool it. They could decide to retain Tim Cahill and sign another Designated Player, similar to the reboot in the early stages of Henry's arrival when they paired him with Rafael Marquez. That team back in 2010 also had strong complementary scoring players such as Joel Lindpere and Kenny Cooper, which the roster for 2015 lacks at this point.
The deal with NYC FC involving Ryan Meara going there in exchange for Sal Zizzo was an interesting move. I think the roster needed a playmaking midfielder, which Zizzo certainly fits that role, and I was never a believer in Meara being a stalwart goalkeeper. However, I think the club needs to do something bolder, I would be thrilled if that player was named Xavi, but I think the rest of you would too.
The Red Bulls front office has essentially been kicking this question around in their meetings because the decisions on this roster for 2015 are crucially important. The team is coming off a very successful run which provided their fans with five straight playoff appearances. The fans are conditioned now to seeing a winning team on the field, now the Red Bulls may be going in the direction of playing younger guys that they are seeking to develop. The next four or five years may look very different than the previous five years did, but I will support the team no matter what the results on the field, win or lose.