By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The New York Red Bulls had a disappointing ending to the 2012 season, losing to archrival D.C. United in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs, a day after an unexpected local snowstorm forced a postponement of the playoff series.
Instead of building on what they had, which was a 16-win squad that was among the best in the MLS throughout the season, the management of the franchise decided to totally clean house, getting a new sporting director, a new head coach with a very familiar face, and an almost totally revamped roster.
So when Red Bull fans flock to Red Bull Arena in Harrison Saturday afternoon, as the Red Bulls open their 2013 home schedule against the Portland Timbers, they will hardly recognize anyone.
Gone is former head coach Hans Backe, replaced by former MetroStars and Red Bulls fan favorite and MLS All-Star Mike Petke.
The management, headed by new sporting director, Scottish soccer great Andy Roxburgh, flirted with the idea of bringing in a head coach with big-time bang, but settled on the 36-year-old Petke, not far removed from his playing days, who had served as the interim head coach after Backe was banished at the end of last season.
“If they decided to go with someone else, I never would have had a problem,” said Petke, who has never been a head coach before. “But I believed that I was always more than ready. I’m more than capable. I always put this club ahead of me in everything I do.”
Petke spent eight seasons as a player and two as an assistant coach with the Red Bulls franchise (formerly known as the MetroStars). He was drafted in the first round of the 1998 MLS Draft and became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played with 169, games started with 158 and minutes played with 14,060. A tough and physical defender during his playing days, earning one berth in the MLS All-Star Game, Petke became one of the most popular players in the club’s history.
“Mike is very experienced in the ways of MLS,” said Roxburgh, the former manager of the Scottish national soccer team, which should make him popular in local circles, especially Kearny.
“If we brought in a coach from Europe, that might not be the case,” Roxburgh added. “Mike knows the league and he’s passionate about this organization and team. All of those things add up to make him the appropriate choice. Everyone is behind Mike, no question. Mike is one of their guys. He’s a pro. He’s humble and hard working. He has to start somewhere. He brings so many qualities to the job. We need to have our own roots right here. The heart and soul of this club is America-based and it starts with our coach. He’s someone with MLS experience and someone from the U.S.”
When Roxburgh took over, he realized that the Red Bulls have experienced more changes at the top than any other MLS Cup since the inception of the MLS in 1996. There have been 13 head coaches in the club’s history. Petke makes it 14. Roxburgh is the ninth sporting director. Jerome de Bontin is the new GM, but Roxburgh will handle personnel moves.
“Stability is absolutely vital,” Roxburgh said. “I know this franchise hasn’t been as stable as it needs to be. We want to create stability, have a greater level of steadiness. We have a real desire to make this franchise one of the best in MLS and to do that, we need to create stability.”
However, there won’t be stability with the roster, as the 2013 Red Bulls roster is nothing like the 2012 version.
Of course, superstar Thierry Henry is back, returning after having his most productive season in Harrison with 15 goals and 12 assists. But Henry, the go-to guy, has to do a better job of staying on the pitch. He missed nine games last season.
Tim Cahill, the Australian hero who had a storied professional career in Great Britain, is also back as the team’s second designated player. But Cahill, who signed last July, didn’t bring the punch that team management thought he would, collecting just one goal and three assists in 12 games. Those numbers simply have to improve. Cahill’s gigantic contract demands better production.
Especially since the team traded Kenny Cooper as a cost-cutting measure, sending Cooper’s 18 goals and popularity packing. If there is one thing that has also seriously hurt this franchise, it’s been the lack of identity on the roster. As soon as team fans get familiar with a player, he’s sent on his way. Cooper was second in the entire league in goals last year, but he’s now gone. It’s hard to fathom.
Hardworking midfielder Joel Lindpere was also traded, another move that has to be questioned. Jan Gunnar Solli and Teemu Tainio, players that were brought in at the request of Backe, are also gone. Sebastien LeToux, who had only a brief stint with the Red Bulls, was also sent back to Philadelphia, the team where he became an All-Star.
Defender Rafa Marquez, brought in three years ago as a designated player, but had a tumultuous tenure with practically everyone here, was released with one year left on his contract. Defenders Stephen Keel, Victor Paulssen and Wilman Conde are also gone, as is goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, who was brought in after rookie Ryan Meara suffered a season-ending hip injury last July.
Fan favorite Dax McCarty is back to anchor the midfield with Cahill.
Former MLS All-Star Heath Pearce is back to be the mainstay on the backline, as are Roy Miller and Markus Holgersson.
Roxburgh wanted to make sure that the Red Bulls maintained their identity with young players, giving New Jersey native Connor Lade, who had a breakout season a year ago, and Brandon Barklege, contracts that are commensurate with their talents. Luis Robles, who played sparingly at the end of last season, has been the goalkeeper thus far, awaiting the return of Ryan Meara, who made a splash last season before getting hurt.
“We want young players in their 20s who would add another dimension,” Roxburgh said. “We want to have a good range of younger kids to veteran players. We’re going to try to identify those who could add dimensions on every level and want to make it a well-rounded squad. We’re going to try our best to get a local identity and a style that fans can identify with.”
Lloyd Sam, who showed some promise in two games last year before getting hurt, is also back to ignite the offense from the midfield.
The team did sign Brazilian standout Juninho to play in the midfield, but the 38-year-old international star is already injured with a calf strain and may not be able to play for a while.
Other newcomers include Kosuke Kimura, a former All-Star defender, midfielders Ruben Izquierdo and Jonny Steel and forward Fabian Espindola, who made a splash in the season-opening tie with Portland by scoring two goals. New defender Jamison Olave also scored a goal in the 3-3 tie with the Timbers.
This franchise has always been in a state of flux and change and that upheaval has prevented the franchise from ever winning the MLS Cup. Can this year be different? The home portion of the season begins Saturday with a 12:30 start against D.C. United, the team that sent the Red Bulls reeling out of last year’s MLS Cup playoffs.