BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – A quick look on paper might lead you to believe the New York Red Bulls are a true championship contender in MLS this year. Between the marquee names, wealth of attacking talent, and the off-season focus on building depth, the Red Bulls should be considered an elite MLS team.
And the Red Bulls should be an elite MLS team, but the same could have been said for 2011, when the most expensive roster in the league limped in as one of the last teams to reach the playoffs, finishing off another trophy-less season.
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This year, the Red Bulls appear to have added some depth and some potential impact players, but the team enters 2012 with more question marks than last year. Who will be the team's goalkeeper? Can Kenny Cooper regain his all-star form? Is Wilman Conde capable of staying healthy and playing at a Best XI level? What will the Red Bulls do with Juan Agudelo?
Until those questions are answered, it is tough to project the Red Bulls as anything more than a talented team that should score goals. This team may be just as flawed, if not more flawed, than last season.
That doesn't mean there aren't championship elements to the Red Bulls. They boast the strongest quartet of forwards in the league, led by French star Thierry Henry. It remains unclear who Hans Backe plans on partnering with Henry up top, whether it be Luke Rodgers or Kenny Cooper, but the addition of Cooper does give the Red Bulls some more firepower.
But at what cost? Cooper's arrival could make it easy for Backe to keep US national team striker Juan Agudelo on the bench, something Backe did with regularity late in 2011. The word in New York is that Backe doesn't rate Agudelo. If that is the case, it could become that much tougher for Agudelo to get on the field, despite the fact he is unquestionably one of the most exciting young players in MLS.
The Red Bulls are still waiting to see if Luke Rodgers receives his work visa to re-enter the United States. If he gets it (as is expected he will), Rodgers will be a good bet to see regular playing time after combining so well with Henry last season. If he doesn't, then the Red Bulls would likely start the season with an Henry-Cooper forward partnership. Agudelo would still battle for minutes.
The midfield quartet is pretty much set in stone, with Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards working the flanks, and Rafa Marquez and Teemu Tainio handling central midfield duties. The lack of an attacking midfielder is a glaring one, but the Red Bulls clearly want Thierry Henry serving as a facilitator, and believe wingers Lindpere and Richards can provide enough support for the team's strikers. That being said, it wouldn't come as a complete surprise if the Red Bulls signed an attacking midfielder this summer.
Defensively, the Red Bulls are counting on new additions Wilman Conde and Markus Holgersson to anchor the defense and help make up for the loss of Tim Ream, who was sold to Bolton this winter. Conde was a standout for the Chicago Fire before an injury-hit move to Mexico. There are growing concerns about his ability to stay healthy, and if he can't, the Red Bulls will have to turn to Stephen Keel, a journeyman centerback who impressed at times in 2011.
The Red Bulls are betting on Conde being the dynamic left-footed centerback he was three years ago, when he was at his best for the Fire. They are also banking on Swedish centerback Markus Holgersson being the physically imposing presence the Red Bulls have lacked in central defense for years.
As important as the form of the team's new centerbacks will be to the team's success, the biggest question mark remains in goal, where rookie Ryan Meara looks poised to be the team's starter. Meara has impressed in the pre-season, and is mature beyond his years, but the track record of rookie goalkeepers in MLS isn't a good one, and Meara could face a baptism by fire if the Red Bulls centerbacks don't pan out as the team had hoped.
Those are quite a few major questions for a team with championship aspirations. Red Bulls leadership has made roster moves with an eye toward winning this year, mortgaging the future in the process. If those moves pan out, the Red Bulls could wind up re-taking their place as the strongest team in the Eastern Conference. If those moves don't pan out, the Red Bulls will not only spend next winter looking for new players. They will also likely be looking for new management.
2012 NEW YORK RED BULLS TEAM OUTLOOK
TOP PLAYERS : Thierry Henry, Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards, Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio
KEY ADDITIONS : Kenny Cooper, Markus Holgersson, Wilman Conde, Ryan Meara, Jonathan Borrajo, Connor Lade
KEY LOSSES : Tim Ream, Carlos Mendes, Frank Rost, Bouna Coundoul
MUST HAVE A BIG YEAR : Rafa Marquez. The Mexican star endured a rough 2011 for the Red Bulls, but has vowed to return this season and play like the player New York thought it was signing as a Designated Player. He will be deployed in midfield barring any injury issues in central defense and he must become a dominant figure in midfield in order for the Red Bulls to be a serious title contender.
BREAKOUT PLAYER TO WATCH : Ryan Meara. It is rare when a rookie goalkeeper can truly hold his own as a starter, but Meara is looking the part in pre-season. The Fordham product is mature, big and intelligent and could have a strong season in goal if the Red Bulls defense can hold up well.
BIGGEST QUESTION : Will the new centerbacks pan out? When the Red Bulls sold Tim Ream to Bolton, they knew replacing Ream would not be easy. The team's response was to bring in two new centerbacks, including former MLS Best XI defender Wilman Conde. If Conde can recapture his old form, and overcome injuries, the Red Bulls should be a challenger in the East. If both Conde and Markus Holgersson prove to be quality additions, the Red Bulls could challenge for the title. And if Conde can't stay healthy and Holgersson proves too slow? New York could be in real trouble.
OUTLOOK : The New York Red Bulls are the most expensive team in MLS, but last year the results just didn't meet expectations. Defensive miscues and a lack of depth cost the team dearly in 2011. This off-season the Red Bulls set out to improve the team's depth and bolster a defense that was far too mistake prone. Offensively, the Red Bulls should still boast one of the most dangerous attacks in the league, with the best quartet of forwards in the league. There are still plenty of unanswered questions about this team. Far more than there should be for a team that has spent this much money.
If the revamped defense can come together, if rookie Ryan Meara can handle the starting goalkeeper job, and if Rafa Marquez can play at the level expected of him, the Red Bulls will be a serious challenger to win the East and reach the MLS Cup Final. Those are a lot of ifs though.