All in all, and perhaps a little sadly, this was a pretty typical year for Major League Soccer’s (MLS) New York franchise: uneven, unsettled, and, as always, unrewarded. But a couple oddities put a fresh twist or two on the familiar: a start to the season strong enough to convince a few that the team had rounded a corner; the simple, frankly shocking presence of a reliable scoring tandem; finally, the year of the designated player, the Year of the Bruce and how those factors interacted. In a sense, then, the narrative for 2007 was all wrong in that it offered Red Bull New York something positively foreign: hope and promise. That they kept that alive until, arguably, August inches a little bit further from the “typical.” But Red Bull’s season ended as they always do, which means that even if things didn’t quite go to Hell after August, they got close enough to make legible the famous statement about hope posted on the gate.
Now, where does that leave us? It was a typical year, but it wasn’t? Damned unsatisfying, that, but it seems accurate. For instance, in the typical column you had Clint Mathis back with the team and starring in the early going (not to mention getting sent off twice by early June – neat trick for an offensive player). In the atypical column, the Red Bull roster featured one of the hottest American prospects in Josmer “Jozy” Altidore and one of the league’s deadliest forwards in Juan Pablo Angel. Back in the typical column, Bruce Arena played the role of high-profile coach, while, almost tragically, Claudio Reyna played the too-familiar, over-priced under-achiever.
The real story of Red Bull’s 2007, however, came from the cast of characters that surrounded the rest of these. A few stood out – guys like Dave van den Bergh, who had a good year, and rookie Dane Richards, who had a great year – but the rest of the team looked and played like a half-anonymous supporting cast. Not to pick on the defense, but they illustrate the general way New York came short on quality. They defended well or poorly on a given day, but it was their limited ability for playing the ball out of the back – something I commented on in an August post, but noticed on more several other occasions – that really struck me about not only the defense, but the team as a whole. And, as noted in that same post, too often they passed short to a midfield suffering the same limitations; take away Claudio Reyna – which happened often enough through injury – and you had a team that struggled with positive possession. Their game became quick rushes down the flanks and long-balls out of the back – something Angel and Arena indirectly sparred over after the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal.
Given the issues with possession, the Arena/Reyna relationship looms over Red Bull’s season – specifically, Arena’s decision to build the team with the somewhat fragile Reyna in mind. In one now-lost post, I highlighted Reyna’s ability to transition the Red Bulls out of defense, mainly because it was hard to miss given the agonizingly futile “whack-a-pass” approach the team had taken the week before sans Claudio. If memory serves, Red Bull still lost the game in question, but that’s hardly the point: a team can play well and lose (thanks to a horrfying gaffe) just like they can play like crap and win, but playing coherently, keeping control of the tempo, and all that helps make the wins more deliberate than accidental. Reyna gave that dimension to Red Bull, but not nearly often enough; seriously, the absence-through injury came in the second game of the friggin’ season. And that’s down to the pre-season chat between Reyna and Arena, when The Bruce wheezed some dreams into the phone about getting together for one more ride, a message sufficiently enticing to make Claudio forget about all his dodgy joints (so the chat only took place in my head…so what?).
Assuming the team can return players like Angel, Altidore, Richards, and, arguably, guys like van den Bergh, or even Dema Kovalenko, they have a decent nucleus; Jon Conway even strikes me as a decent enough ‘keeper. In other words, Arena deserves some credit for building a foundation. But, apart from finding some healthy, durable defenders who can pass, they need to find someone who isn’t Claudio Reyna to be Claudio Reyna.
– Red Bull’s first four games – in which they won three and tied one while holding the opposition scoreless – were great, but the real achievement was ending June on a 5-2-1 record in league play with 15 goals for and 3 against. The optimism added up.
– Sadly, the old Bulls returned in August. Counting forward from August 22, the team won only once and, with the need for points growing ever acute, they went five games without a win between September 9 and October 4.
– Then, as has happened in the previous two seasons, along came the Kansas City Wizards.
What Went Right
– Signing Angel looks, y’know, sharp-ish.
– You couldn’t ask for a better rookie season than Richards. Well, you could, but then you’d be getting greedy.
– Altidore is progressing nicely.
– Signing Reyna looks even more dubious today than it did before the season.
– I didn’t mention this above, but should have: Arena gave trade addicts like Mo Johnston, Alexi Lalas, and Jason Kreis a run for his money – and to about as much effect. Few if any trades panned out for Arena.
– Speaking of Arena, his second ugly on-the-job flameout, even if it was somewhat exaggerated, raises questions about his future.
– Injuries proved problematic, but the lack of competent cover was the real issue to many unspecialized role-players for this bunch.
Key Men (as in the Ones You Want Back)
Juan Pablo Angel: Coming second in the scoring race ain’t bad at all when you’re only one off.
Jozy Altidore: Assuming they can keep him.
Dane Richards: His speed alone causes match-up problems; if he can learn to cross he’d be deadly.
Dema Kovalenko: He’s not lovable, but he has his uses: thug-style frees up creative players and he’s good enough.
Anyone Who Ought to Leave
Claudio Reyna: I love him as a player, but he’s not doing enough of that these days.
Ronald Wattereus: He retired as well, right?
What They’re Needin’
– More or less what I closed with: someone able to bring coherence to their midfield and who can provide a better option to defenders than a long ball down the flanks (which, for some reason, they don’t hit all that well…you’d think the practice would help). Go for Shalrie Joseph…not that you’ll get him, but that’s the guy (Jeff Larentowicz, maybe?)
– Defenders, defenders, defenders – as many as they can find. They have good backups, or good parts, but they need a guy like, oh, Wilman Conde, or some kind of great organizer in the back.
– A ‘keeper to either supersede or push Jon Conway, a good, but not great ‘keeper.