Thierry Henry’s bittersweet au revoir now leaves the New York Red Bulls at a crucial crossroads. The fabulous Frenchman recast the floundering founding franchise from dowdy also-rans into Marion Cotillard-beautiful league beaters. But this season ended just like all the 18 previous – MLS Cupless. With NYCFC’s arrival raising the stakes higher than Chris Christie’s cholesterol, where does the North Jersey club go from here?
Head coach Mike Petke, whose roots with the club go back to the days when his frosted mane matched the MetroStars’ yellow taxi-logo, recently said “we have a very good plan for the future, and it’s going to take an understanding from our fan base and an understanding from the media perhaps. We want to build something. I want to build something. And I think that we have a good idea how to do that.”
Certainly a firm foundation is in place with goal machine and harsh refereeing decision victim Bradley Wright-Phillips backed by valuable midfielders Péguy Luyindula, Lloyd Sam and Dax McCarty. The club could retain 35-year-old designated player Tim Cahill but he’s a shot-taker, not a shot-creator like Henry. Henry had the fourth-highest assist total in MLS since his 2010 arrival, and Wright-Phillips in particular will miss the space and chances created by Henry’s slicing-and-dicing runs in from the wing. Including the playoffs, Henry assisted on ten Wright-Phillips bangers this year.
The Red Bulls have already begun their roster maneuvering ahead of the expansion draft by declining seven player options and using the Designated Player slot freed up by Henry’s departure on an extension for Wright-Phillips. If Cahill walks, they could pursue a reunion with former homegrown phenom Jozy Altidore. But the club’s chief concern is a leaky defense that lets in goals the way the Lincoln Tunnel lets in cars. The Red Bulls were tied with Seattle for most goals allowed among the ten playoff squads. Top targets like Toronto’s Justin Morrow, L.A.’s Omar Gonzalez, New England’s Andrew Farrell, D.C.’s Bobby Boswell, and Seattle’s Chad Marshall are likely unavailable. If the pressure is on to match headlines with NYCFC, then Rio Ferdinand, who is almost assuredly done at QPR, could be brought in to man the backs and tell Wright-Phillips tales about playing alongside his pops at West Ham back in the late 90s.
By 2006 the MetroStars and their supporters were like bleary-eyed college students staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page as the sun rose over the quad with a term paper due that morning. They were saved by the mysterious Dietrich Mateschitz and his injection of Red Bull’s millions. By 2010 they had left the gargantuan Giants Stadium, where they routinely had some of the most meager crowds in the league, for their spaceship home on a Passaic River bend steps from a PATH train that runs to Manhattan. Under the energy drink’s watch, the club has boasted such players as Jozy Altidore, Juan Pablo Angel, Juan Agudelo, Rafa Marquez, and Joel Lindpere. They build the club a permanent premier training facility and founded an academy team. Red Bull Arena is, by far, the most architecturally-striking building in the league, and its natural grass helped convince Thierry Henry that this was the right MLS club for him. Then in 2013 came the Supporter’s Shield – the club’s first ever trophy.
Yet there was Don Garber, in his annual State of the League address, once again having to address rumors that Red Bull are looking to offload the team. On the one hand it would only be prudent business to entertain offers considering the skyrocketing league franchise fees. On the other hand, with Sheikh Monsour and the Steinbrenner family’s billions behind NYCFC, Red Bull supporters need to know that their Austrian overlords’ commitment is still as firm as the Palisades.
Piling onto the pressure of moving on from the Henry era is the sky blue spectre sitting across the Hudson and Harlem Rivers in Yankee Stadium. Even if Frank Lampard stays in Manchester and David Villa disappoints like he did for sister-club Melbourne City, NYCFC will have an easy sell just by playing in an iconic stadium that millions of New Yorkers and people from all over the world are already comfortable hitting up on a regular basis. They’ve sold 10,000 season tickets already.
The Red Bulls/MetroStars have struggled for relevancy across the Hudson since the get-go. The New Jersey and Devils, along with the many pro lacrosse and arena football teams that have called the Brendan Byrne/Continental Airlines Arena/Izod Center home over the years, have putridly proven that non-NFL sports don’t work in the suburbs. The move to the public transit hub that is Newark has helped – somewhat. City kids will happily criss-cross the upper four boroughs on a given day but the Hudson River represents a psychological barrier, as shown by how meekly the PATH’s weekend ridership pales in comparison to even the G, long the subway’s least-used line. Relying on public transit, bikes, and their own two feet makes the average New Yorker’s world very small, especially in comparison to most sprawling American cities where the average person might travel dozens of miles over the course of a day. As beautiful as Red Bull Arena is, since it’s opened in 2010 attendance there has trailed Vancouver, Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle, Salt Lake, Portland, Montreal, Los Angeles, and Houston.
While many great players have donned the red-and-black MetroStars stripes and the charging bulls shirts over the past 19 years, the Red Bulls can’t point to a bursting trophy cabinet in the battle for the Big Apple buck. With their inferior location compared to Yankee Stadium all the pressure is on the Red Bulls to revamp a roster that continues their recent winning ways to prevent the club from fading to nothingness like the last Sopranos scene.
Aram accepts any comments, questions, or sporting challenges at @aghease.
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