It would hardly be a stretch to call the New York Red Bulls' 2011 season a disaster. Despite spending nearly $14 million on player salaries -- more than even the LA Galaxy -- the Red Bulls barely squeaked into the playoffs as the No. 10 seed. Although they did win their first-round match, their playoff run was ended abruptly by a clearly superior Galaxy team.
Along the way, the Red Bulls seemed to be followed by a near constant stream of negative headlines. If it wasn't coach Hans Backe skipping out on a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal match; it was Thierry Henry twice being suspended (fairly or not); Rafael Marquez throwing his teammates under the bus; and then, of course, the infamous melee during the first leg of the playoff matchup against the Galaxy.
If this offseason is any indication, 2012 might not be much better.
The latest news is that Backe apparently no longer expects to have either Juan Agudelo or Luke Rodgers, at least not for the entire season. In Agudelo's case, it's his being persistently tied to transfer rumors abroad. That he's currently with the United States national team is doing nothing to diminish his value and it appears the Red Bulls are very much open to allowing their prized academy product leave if the price is right. As much as Red Bulls fans may miss Agudelo, it is another sign that MLS academies are capable of producing highly sought after talent.
Rodgers' situation is not quite so capable of being spun in a positive manner. Rodgers came to the Red Bulls with a bit of a checkered past, which caused his initial application for a U.S. work visa to be denied. He was eventually granted a one-year visa, which allowed him to have a standout season in 2011. But Rodgers is currently in England awaiting a decision on getting an extension. That situation is still evolving, but Backe is clearly at least a little concerned, telling the New York Post: "You never know. Hopefully we get an answer as soon as possible in 10 days. It’s unfortunate, because he’s been big for us."
The potential absences of two of the Red Bulls' top forwards comes in addition to the impending departure of Tim Ream, who is currently in England waiting to see if his work permit is approved which would allow him to join Bolton, and news that goalkeeper Frank Rost will not be back in 2012.
To fill these holes, the Red Bulls have been curiously low key. Although the team has signed Sweden's Markus Holgersson, who could prove to be a defensive upgrade over Ream, that is by far their most significant move. Stephen Keel, a 28-year-old centerback who comes into this season with a grand total of 20 career starts spread over five seasons, appears to be in line for a starting job if Marquez is moved back to defensive midfielder as expected.
The goalkeeping situation is even more dire, as recent second-round SuperDraft pick Ryan Meara would likely be the starter if the season started today after Greg Sutton, Alex Howarth and Bouna Condoul were all let go. While the Red Bulls will almost certainly find a veteran before the season starts, it should be noted that no rookie goalkeeper has led their team to the MLS Cup playoffs since 2002.
To address that gaping hole at forward, where virtually unused second-year player Corey Hertzog could be the top returning forward other than Henry, the Red Bulls have added Kenny Cooper in a trade. If this was 2009, that could seem to be seen as a solid pickup. But after Cooper scored just five goals during his final 27 matches with the Portland Timbers in 2011, the gamble is significant. It's also unclear how Cooper will mesh with Henry, a player whose best performances came with Rodgers alongside him. Say whatever you want about the 6-foot-3 Cooper, but there's simply no denying that he's a very different player than the 5-foot-7 Rodgers.
None of this even begins to address the rumors around players like Joel Lindpere, who has been getting interest from England. Losing Lindpere, easily the Red Bulls' most consistent player over the past two seasons, would probably be too much even for a team with virtually bottomless funds.
The good news is that there's still plenty of time before the Red Bulls open their 2012 campaign with a nationally televised game against FC Dallas on March 11. They only have 21 players currently under contract, so there is plenty of room for improvement, as well.
As training camps opened this week, though, the Red Bulls are clearly a team in serious need of some good news. Otherwise, 2011 may prove to have been mere foreshadowing.
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