Backe's experience with mid-level clubs and non-superstar players may serve him well in New York.
While we had a little fun with yesterday’s announcement of Swede Hans Backe as the new coach of the Red Bulls, we don’t, by any means, intend to declare the man a failure before he’s even run an RBNY training session. We’ll wait until the team gives up three consecutive 89th-minute goals for its first three-game losing streak this spring. Ha. No, really, we’re willing to give the guy, and the new Red Bull regime, a chance.
In fact, we enlisted a few fellow long-suffering MetroBull fans to talk us down off the ledge last night and look at the bright side, at least a little bit. So today, in the clear light of a Friday morning, with 78 days to go before the crucial opening-day game in its sparkling new stadium, let’s look at where this team stands, tackle some (not all; we’d eventually have to quit for dinner) of the questions it faces, and see what Backe has cut out for himself.
We’ll start with the roster from last year’s most impressive performance, the 5-0 pasting of playoff hopefuls Toronto in the 2009 season finale. Here’s that squad, along with subs and bench:
GK: Bouna Coundoul
Backline: Carlos Johnson, Andrew Boyens, Mike Petke (Walter Garcia 9), Danleigh Borman
Midfield: Jeremy Hall, Dane Richards, Albert Celades (Matthew Mbuta 92+), Seth Stammler,
Strikers: Macoumba Kandji, Juan Pablo Angel (Sinisa Ubiparipovic 90).
Substitutes Not Used: GK Danny Cepero, M Ernst Oebster, M Luke Sassano, M Nick Zimmerman
Let’s start at the back and move forward.
Goalkeeper: As far as we’re concerned, “Bouna Time!” should continue uninterrupted at the new stadium. Coundoul, who’s been capped twice by Senegal, is a clear upgrade over Cepero in goal.
Defenders: Reconstruction has already begun here, as today the team confirmed the signing–reported earlier in the week–of 25-year-old Costa Rican Roy Miller, a 6-2, 170-pound defender with 12 caps for his national team.
Miller has 12 caps for Costa Rica.
The backline most definitely needs shoring up (RBNY tied with Dallas for most goals allowed in 2009), and Miller’s pedigree makes him look like a worthy addition, one who’ll likely fit well with fellow Costa Rican Johnson, who has always been solid for the RBs when healthy. But there are still holes here, most notably in the middle, where Kiwi Boyens is definitely not the answer and Mike Petke, though rightly beloved among RB faithful, is not getting any younger. Soler and Backe still need to anchor their defense with a quality centerback.
Midfield: Albert Celades, aka The Playmaker Who Wasn’t, Really, has retired. Hall showed potential as a winger and Stammler has been good-to-competent as a holding midfielder. We’d like to see Richards and his wooden touch go, but the lightning-fast winger signed a long-term contract last February, so….we might be stuck with him. As for the midfield subs from last year’s finale, we’ve always liked Ubiparipovic’s ability to get out of tight spaces and maintain possession in midfield, and Oebster and Mbuta have shown promise. Zimmerman was taken by Philadelphia in the expansion draft, and Sassano has never wowed us.
But there isn’t one guy in the entire group who is a playmaker that can unlock opposing defenses. That’s the player Soler and Backe need to find, and sign.
Strikers: Angel is one of the greatest imports in league history, period. Red Bull is lucky to have him, still. Kandji could be a star in this league; he’s deceptively rangy and fast, and he produces–he had four goals and five assists in 20 starts last season–but he missed seven games due to injury. Mbuta can play up top, but given Kandji’s injuries last year, and Angel’s age (34) the team definitely needs reinforcements here.
So there you have a rough sketch of the initial roster issues facing Soler, Backe, Williams and Co., and don’t forget, they have a Designated Player spot open following Claudio Reyna’s retirement in 2008. Will they use it early, to bring in a marquee player in hopes of getting the season (and the new stadium) off to a good start, or will they wait till after the World Cup, when an international superstar or two may be ready to quit Europe and give MLS a try (see Henry, Thierry)?
Stay tuned. And post your take on the state of RBNY in the comments. What do you think of the Backe hire? Can this staff put together a respectable team in time for the new season? Will they adjust to the peculiarities of doing business in MLS? Or will the Curse of the Meadowlands continue?