Rising in the East: New York

Given the team’s unsteady history, there should probably be a question mark instead of a colon in the header above. But the Red Bulls did add some intriguing signings to their already talented roster this offseason, and they, like most of the rest of the Eastern Conference, believe they have the players to contend for it all in 2012.

And we mean literally contend for it all: Here’s coach Hans Backe on a recent conference call with reporters, as relayed by MLSsoccer.com: “I say we should go for it all: the Open Cup, the [Supporters’] Shield, the MLS Cup. We have a very good squad this year.”

And so they do. But they had a very talented squad last year, and barely scraped their way into the playoffs. They’ve had some talented teams peppered through their 16-year history, and yet the franchise doesn’t have a single trophy to show for it. Not one. (Unless you count the 2011 ‘Emirates Cup,’ which you probably shouldn’t.)

The problem with New York (well, the main one) is that the team has never had an identity. From the get-go in 1996, they’ve lacked personality, continuity, and stability. The team has had 12 coaches in 16 years, and cycled through a phone book’s worth of players.

The Backe era, now entering its third season, hasn’t been much different. Last season, on the all-too-appropriate date of April 1 (considering what followed), the team traded promising midfielder Tony Tchani, defender Danleigh Borman, and a draft pick to acquire Toronto FC attacker Dwayne De Rosario.

Thirteen games later, though, New York shipped De Rosario to DC United straight-up for midfielder Dax McCarty—and De Ro promptly went on a tear, finishing the season with 16 goals, 12 assists, and the league MVP award.

The upshot was that they’d cut loose two useful bench players, a draft pick, and the MVP of the league, for … Dax McCarty. It was not an efficient piece of front-office maneuvering, and it reminded fans of the bad old days they’d hoped had been left behind when Backe and GM Erik Soler took over after the 2009 season.

This offseason, though, has produced reasons for cautious (very cautious) optimism among those shell-shocked fans: The team lost central defender Tim Ream, an unheralded 2010 draft pick who played his way onto the U.S. national team, but they replaced him with Markus Holgersson, a 26-year-old fresh from winning a treble in his native Sweden and earning his first international call-up.

The 6-3 Holgersson will most likely partner with 6-2 Wilman Conde, a 29-year-old Colombian who was an MLS Best XI selection with Chicago in 2009.

If Conde is 80% the player he was in 2009, and if Holgersson is a genuine international-caliber centerback, then New York will have upgraded its backline significantly. The height of the two new defenders should also help the team get better in the air on set pieces—a glaring weakness last season, both offensively and defensively.

In midfield, the team added Icelandic U-21 player Victor Palsson, whose signing was announced today. He’ll add depth in the center of the park, where the team relied too heavily on Teemu Tainio last season.

The most curious acquisition was that of former Portland and FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper. It’s hard to imagine him and Thierry Henry on the field together, as their styles seem too similar to mesh well. But if the team is going after three trophies, as Backe says they are, they’ll need depth—and if Cooper, who’s still only 27, can recapture something like his 2008 form, when he scored 18 goals in 30 games for Dallas, he’ll be a solid pickup.

The Red Bulls also have five players trialing with them in preseason at the moment, and Backe told the MLS website that he would like to sign them all if he can fit them under the salary cap.

Now if they can just solve their goalkeeping problem….

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