Patryk Klimala needs to double his production from last year if the Red Bulls have any designs of making the playoffs. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
The list seems to get a bit longer every year.
Sporting Kansas City
San Jose Earthquakes
Real Salt Lake
Seattle Sounders FC
Atlanta United FC
New York City FC
If you haven’t caught on by now, that is the list of Major League Soccer clubs that have celebrated winning the MLS Cup since 1996.
And no Red Bulls.
For Red Bulls fans, to make matter worse – NYCFC, in only its seventh season – celebrated with the Philip F. Anschutz trophy in Portland, Ore. on Dec. 11.
Oh, there have been some memorable seasons for the Red Bulls. They reached the MLS Cup final during a Cinderella run in 2008, only to fall to a better Columbus Crew side. They also won an impressive three Supporters’ Shield titles over a six-year span.
Unlike the rest of the world, however, the holy grail of Division I soccer in the United States is MLS Cup.
And the question isn’t necessarily whether this team can win it, but whether it will have the ingredients to even reach the playoffs.
I’ve seen some preseason prognostications, and many have them missing the postseason or barely making it.
The Red Bulls’ problems and challenges were amplified on Friday when Kevin Thelwell, who had been head of sport for two years, stepped down to become director of football at Everton in the English Premier League.
Now, that is a much more prestigious job than anything in MLS, but this certainly wasn’t a good look for a team on the eve of its season opener. The Red Bull play at the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET.
These type of negotiations don’t happen overnight. If Thelwell knew he was going to leave, how much did that affect his ability to attract someone knew to the team? I guess we will never know.
Perhaps the mothership in Salzburg will have someone in the wings to give, ahem, this team much needed wings. But if it is an MLS outsider, how much will Thelwell’s successor need to learn on the fly?
But quite frankly, the man who runs things leaving just before the season doesn’t give this veteran soccer writer much confidence in the team.
Saying that I hope the Red Bulls prove my fears and concerns wrong.
You have to remember that Thelwell brought head coach Gerhard Struber over at considerable cost deep into the 2020 season. If the Red Bulls stumble under a new head of sport, his safety net could be gone.
Like it or not, it is part of the history of sports. A new sporting director or general manager comes aboard, and he or she will want to put their stamp on the team, especially if the squad underachieves or isn’t getting results.
Still, you have to give Struber some credit for admitting the team’s goal was not winning MLS Cup, not echoing many a coach’s impulse to claim it is the league championship or bust.
Perhaps he is following a philosophy of under promising with the hope of overachieving.
But just where is this team going and what can it achieve?
It is a young side. And yes, young teams sometimes have a way of jelling and surprising the opposition.
The Red Bulls are solid defensively. The underrated Carlos Coronel (well, not here, but in many corners of the league) was stellar in the net last season. And that was with a backline forced to play without U.S. men’s national team center back Aaron Long for most of the season. He was sidelined with an Achilles injury. With Long back, the defense – team and backline – is expected to be the cornerstone of the team again that allowed only 33 goals in 34 matches (tied for the best in the league).
The big question, not surprisingly, is on attack.
Last year the Red Bulls scored but 39 goals in 34 regular season matches. That production was near the bottom of the league. Given the improvements of other Eastern Conference teams, the Red Bulls (13-12-9, 48 points) finding a spot above their seventh-place finish last year could be a daunting task. Remember, they qualified for the playoffs by a point over D.C. and Columbus.
So many questions:
* Can Patryk Klimala become a dominant goal-scorer many observers were hoping for in 2021? That would be 15 goals, instead of the paltry team-high eight he tallied.
* Can Caden Clark, whose promising year (four goals, five assists) was interrupted by an appendectomy midway through it, live up to his potential and become an attacking force?
* Can Cristian Casseres, Jr., who has played well in several midfield roles, do some damage in one spot on a more consistent basis?
* Can midfielder Lewis Morgan, acquired from Inter Miami CF for $1.2 million in General Allocation Money over two years, make a difference on the wing?
* Can Luquinhas, obtained from Legia Warsaw (Poland), become the attacking midfielder the team needs to put it over the hump or at least help teammates find a way to score more goals?
* Will there be any other additions down the road? The summer transfer window can transform a team from also-rans and into a contender with the right player.
* Does Salzburg want to spend more money on this team?
* And who will replace Thelwell?
As for immediate concerns, four players are out of the San Jose match — Andres Reyes and Wiki Carmona have foot injuries and Luquinhas and Tom Edwards don’t have their visas.
You have to wonder about this Red Bulls team.
During his preseason Zoom press conference on Wednesday, Struber said he had only 16 field players for the opener.
In contrast to many MLS clubs that had regular media access during the preseason, the Red Bulls were silent and under the radar.
That isn’t necessarily good for the team in general, especially with the necessity of the growing the brand and getting more publicity, especially in the wake of NYCFC gaining greater popularity after winning MLS Cup.
Here are some other questions that came to mind:
* Why wasn’t Struber available talk to the media?
* Were there things he or the club didn’t want to share?
* And perhaps the most provocative question: What are they hiding?
So many questions, not many answers, at least not on Friday, Feb. 25.
By 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Feb. 26, perhaps we’ll have a few answers to some questions.