The New York Red Bulls are as corporate as it gets in the 21st century. The current set-up resembles the early days of club football where players from teams were given “jobs” to work in factories or as salesmen for their employer. Does anyone fancy Rafael Marquez or Thierry Henry driving a tractor trailer making deliveries of Red Bull to your local grocer? I think not. Although there are clubs in modern day who are named and sponsored by a beverage of some sort, just ask the recently relegated Quilmes Atletico Club in Argentina.
The Red Bulls squad contains international superstars Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez. They also contain international talent from lesser known football countries like Teemu Tainio (Finland) and Joel Lindpere (Estonia) who collectively have more than 125 caps for their respective countries. The squad also includes young American up and comers Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo have already been capped for the U.S. Men’s National Team at the senior level. Not to mention Wayne Rooney’s younger brother John who is set to blaze his own trails here in America as opposed to living in his brother’s shadow in England. This combination of international superstars who are in the twilight of their careers and young, talented individuals who have their best years ahead of them would set the U.S. soccer scene on fire right?
Unfortunately, this squad has been overshadowed by bigger stories in the MLS this season. They may not even be one of the top three storylines of the season. Los Angeles with David Beckham and Landon Donovan draw more media attention. There’s Real Salt Lake who lost in the CONCACAF Champions League Final and finally the introduction of the Pacific Northwest, which has three MLS teams; Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps, in relatively short distance from each other. New York is even having difficulty selling out their home games in their new 25,189 seat stadium, Red Bull Arena. Their lowest attendance of the season was a fixture against the Houston Dynamo which was recorded at 13,664. So why is there apathy towards a team loaded with talent? Some of it may stem from last year’s exit in the MLS playoffs. After finishing first in the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls were eliminated in the quarterfinals by the San Jose Earthquakes. Many felt the team should have gone further.
It’s gone somewhat differently in 2011. Coach Hans Backe may have adopted a slow and steady approach to the season. The team currently lies in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference. In the MLS, there exists a playoff system. Having the best record in the league earns a team the MLS Supporters Shield and a financial bonus. Backe has the league’s leading scorer in Henry who at this stage of his career is proving he can still play at a high level. Backe must balance the squad to make sure he does not over exert his seasoned veterans during the regular season as he will need to rely on them in the playoffs. The team has a starting eleven which contains enough talent and flair to run with any team in the MLS and maybe even in CONCACAF. Their depth however is unproven. Rafael Marquez, who was injured during the Gold Cup, has exposed the defense which in turn have had a few horrendous outings. Four goals were let allowed during a match in Seattle against the Sounders and more recently another four goals were allowed in a match against defending MLS Cup champions Colorado Rapids.
Management in the club has made their message clear. Their aim is to win and to win now. There is little interest in drafting and developing talent. The Red Bulls used to have one of the best scouting systems in the league. This important aspect of the game, which few MLS teams have truly mastered, is now deemed less important within the organization. Earlier in the season, the Red Bulls traded for Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario. De Rosario was acquired on April 1st and was then traded on June 28th. Rumors have it De Rosario’s advancing age and perceived declining skills were a reason for the trade. In return the Red Bulls acquired Dax McMarty a young, proven, two-way player in the MLS. This may not be the last roster move the Red Bulls make all season. This “win now” culture may come with a price though. Just ask the fans of Austrian side SV Austria Salzburg.