Who do you expect to be in starting XI at First Kick?
Despite his eccentricity, Bouna Coundoul will be in goal for the New York Red Bulls on March 19. The Senegalese international is an entertaining but occasionally fear-inducing presence between the sticks for New York; he's capable of playing out of his mind (see last year's game at home against Kansas City) and losing games almost single-handedly (away to Chivas USA).
In front of Couldoul the standout defensive rookie of 2010, Tim Ream, will start alongside Mexican captain Rafael Márquez. The former Barcelona man played much of his first half-season in MLS as a defensive midfielder, but Hans Backe's plethora of options in central midfield and comparative lack of quality at centreback means Márquez will move to the backline for 2011. The right back spot is up for grabs as the Red Bulls have been trying out the former Tottenham midfielder Teemu Tainio on the right side of defense to possibly replace the amazingly consistent Chris Albright. On the left, Roy Miller will continue to start, much to the annoyance of the Red Bull Arena faithful.
Backe has been setting the Red Bulls up in a 4-1-3-2 during pre-season, with Tony Tchani the deep man in midfield behind (from left to right) new signing Jan Gunnar Solli, Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere, and Jamaican speed demon Dane Richards, who has been in a rich vein of from since last August. The strike pairing up top, assuming that the Red Bulls' team is fully fit or nearly so, should be Thierry Henry and Juan Agudelo.
Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?
Most of the Red Bulls' fans are looking forward to watching the team's two new Homegrown players, Sacir Hot and Matt Kassel. However, the two youngsters are unlikely to see much playing time this season.
Instead, English striker Luke Rodgers and the Norwegian midfielder Solli are the two key additions to the Red Bulls' side for 2011. The former should bring some badly needed pace to the New York attack, while Hans Backe is hoping that the latter will fill the big hole on the left side of midfield. Henry has lost a step or two, and though Juan Agudelo will probably start in the attack both he and Henry have had injury problems recently, giving Rodgers the chance to make a name for himself in MLS if he can stay fit and firing.
Solli has been frequently compared to Joel Lindpere, and the Red Bulls will be in great shape if the Norwegian midfielder can replicate his Estonian teammate's first season for New York. He hasn't been great wide on the left in pre-season, but may have the chance to operate in a more familiar central role as the season progresses.
Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?
This is very easy: Juan Pablo Ángel. The Red Bulls do not have a player with the same combination of consistency, experience, and leadership in their attack -- for all of Henry's quality as a footballer, he has not been consistent in MLS and has been plagued with injuries in recent seasons. Seth Stammler, John Wolyniec, and Mike Petke will be missed, both for their commitment over the long haul and their connections with the fanbase, but Ángel was undoubtedly the best player for the Red Bulls from mid-2007 until Henry and Márquez arrived last year. He may not be in good enough shape to be on top form for a full season any more, but the Red Bulls will miss their former captain's aerial ability and leadership.
At what point is this season considered success?
When the Red Bulls have a trophy to display at Red Bull Arena. It really is that simple, and probably won't matter what trophy. Winning is the club's goal, and Red Bull have put plenty of money towards achieving it. A US Open Cup, the Supporters' Shield, or MLS Cup -- whatever form it may take, Red Bulls fans want to win some kind of competition, and after the disappointment of last season the pressure will be even higher to finally put some silverware in the club's trophy cabinet.
Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?
It's very tempting to say Bouna Coundoul, but the Red Bulls' fortunes will probably be more closely linked with the form of midfield dynamo Joel Lindpere. He marshals the team in the middle of the park, helps out the defense, sets up goals, and scores a few spectacular ones. Lindpere is also an iron man who plays hurt and works harder than anyone else on the team. Unfortunately, he's not the most creative (which is also true of the team as a whole) and like all players is prone to the occasional bad game. What makes him so influential, particularly this season, is that Hans Backe has moved Lindpere further up in the attack; instead of playing as a holding midfielder or an auxiliary left winger, he is effectively the Red Bulls' #10, an attacking midfielder.
Which of the Red Bulls' young players will make the biggest impact in 2011?
Much was made of Tim Ream's brilliant first season in MLS, and as discussed above Red Bulls fans are excited about the club's homegrown players, but not nearly as much attention has been focused on New York's first draft pick from 2010, Tony Tchani. The University of Virgina midfielder won a national championship in college, but spent most of the first half of the Red Bulls' 2010 season as a bit-part player and only got a string of starts in the US Open Cup qualifiers. However, Tchani grew from a competent defensive midfielder who struggled with his passing early in the season to a midfield general by the latter part of the campaign. There were several games in the late summer and early fall when he completely bossed the center of the pitch: covering defensively, winning the ball back, and starting attacks. He has the potential to be starting in a top-flight European midfield by his late twenties, and the Red Bulls will be in great shape if he can continue to progress this season as he did in the last.
How will Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez fare in their first full season in MLS?
This is everyone's favorite question -- perhaps because they want the answer to be "badly." Neither Henry nor Márquez played brilliantly in 2010, but the Mexican captain was far more consistent and durable than his former Barcelona teammate, who never hit any kind of form. Both should be fully fit for the coming season, although Márquez's season will almost certainly be interrupted by the Gold Cup this summer. They should have adapted to the style of play and refereeing in MLS by now, but that doesn't guarantee good performances either.
For Henry, success will depend a lot on the service he receives and who he is paired with in New York's attack. Playing alongside Juan Agudelo, given the young American's technical skill, will probably be more potent than if Henry were alongside Luke Rodgers or Salou Ibrahim, and he may suffer from New York's lack of midfield creativity. Márquez has a great partner at the back in Tim Ream, but will have to improve his ball security and toughness to avoid some of the cheap giveaways that cost goals in 2010.