The New York Red Bulls are off to their hottest start in franchise history, they are two points behind Eastern Conference leaders DC United, and they appear to have the talent, depth and drive to be real title contenders. No complaints, right? Not so much. The Red Bulls, perpetually built to "win now," are facing serious problems at the start of the current summer, and it has, since last fall, become very clear that merely making the Major League Soccer Playoffs will no longer be good enough for a long-suffering fan base that, if I'm going to be honest about it, deserves better from this team.
In short, "so far, so good" will only mean anything if it leads to New York earning hardware this fall.
New York Red Bulls 2012 midseason review: Team MVP
Captain Thierry Henry was on his way to winning the league MVP award before suffering a hamstring injury back at the end of April. Since that time, Dax McCarty, playing the role of defensive midfielder in place of the often-missing Rafa Marquez (more on that later), has been the team's best player and a significant reason for the Red Bulls being near the top of the overall MLS standings. McCarty is the defensive presence Marquez has failed to be since joining New York, and the former DC United man is also improving in the attacking third with each match. The RBNY front office has made it clear that Marquez won't be departing the team anytime soon. I'm OK with that decision as long as Marquez doesn't steal McCarty's spot in New York's starting eleven.
New York Red Bulls 2012 midseason review: Team LVP
I was fully willing to give the previously mentioned Marquez a chance at the start of the campaign. He has, since March, been an ideal "Least Valuable Player" candidate in that he has barely played at all. Marquez has appeared in just seven games thus far this season, and when he hasn't been injuring opposing players, he has been sitting on the sidelines due to suspensions and "injury of the week" issues. I wouldn't be so upset about this if Marquez wasn't making over $4.5m to be one of the team's key men. Thanks to players such as McCarty, Marquez now appears to be expensive surplus and little more. I'd love for that to change and for Marquez to prove to be, as Henry recently called him, "the boss." It's going to take more than one solid game a month for that to happen.
New York Red Bulls 2012 midseason review: The big story I
General manager and sporting director Erik Soler and the New York front office are often criticized by fans for a plethora of reasons, including the acquisition of certain players who have little to no impact in MLS games. No such claims can be made at the midway point of the 2012 campaign, as New York have mostly gotten it right regarding offseason moves. Acquiring Kenny Cooper on MLS SuperDraft day was a genius move, as was drafting goalkeeper Ryan Meara. Cooper, currently in the middle of a slight goal drought, remains second in the league in goals scored heading into the first weekend in July. Meara has, in his first several months of MLS play, been the consistent goalkeeper RBNY have needed for several years.
Head coach Hans Backe isn't always keen on giving youngsters a shot, but injuries and suspensions forced his hand numerous times during the first half of the season. The result was players such as Connor Lade, Brandon Barklage and the previously mentioned McCarty proving that they can start and even thrive in a MLS starting eleven. Barklage and Lade may not yet be ready for the keys to the RBNY kingdom, but they are examples of the true depth in New York's squad, depth that's needed to win a championship at this level.
New York Red Bulls 2012 midseason review: The big story II
I do kinda/sorta feel sorry for Backe considering the poor guy hasn't had a full first choice lineup available to him once this season. The injury bug that has consistently hovered around Red Bull Arena since the latter stages of winter has forced Backe to revolve players in and out of the team's back line, his captain has missed over a third of the team's games, his other designated player has been paid to be a spectator in all but seven contests, and the team's MVP from the previous season cannot legally rejoin the club. Backe has done extremely well to hold things together as best as possible, earning himself some serious Coach of the Year votes at this stage of the season.
Having to constantly rotate guys in and out of the team each and every weekend is no way to win a MLS Cup. Eventually, team chemistry and in-match form of players will become serious problems if New York are unable to keep a true starting eleven healthy for longer than 14 days. Truth be told, I'm already looking ahead to the break that is coming at the beginning of September. Maybe then the Red Bulls will be able to get fully rested and as healthy as possible heading into the closing stretch of the campaign.
New York Red Bulls 2012 midseason review: Overall
The Red Bulls really are a funny team in that they cannot avoid the "Same old Metro" mantra that will seemingly forever haunt this franchise. Only New York could be off to their best start ever and yet still be leaving fans thinking that this team should be higher up in the standings than they actually are. A laundry list of injury woes, the Luke Rodgers Saga that is hopefully soon coming to some kind of real resolution, and rumors regarding a yet-to-be-signed DP should all make for another wild summer for RBNY supporters.
I wouldn't have it any other way.
The Red Bulls have met and exceeded the expectations I held for them back in March, so much so that I'm actually letting down my guard and dreaming of New York winning their final match of the season, one played in December. A lot will have to go right for the Red Bulls for such visions to become reality. They're well on their way and are better off then they were a year ago today, and thus I am able to confidently deliver the following midseason grade;
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