The New York Red Bulls open the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs this weekend against DC United. It has been a tumultuous season for the Red Bulls, with players coming and going seemingly every week and long-time general manager Erik Soler being replaced.
With the playoffs coming up we reached out to the lead writer of SB Nation's Red Bulls website, Once A Metro, for some input. Below, Matt answers five questions from us.
SB Nation New York: Entering the playoffs, do you see the Red Bulls as legitimate title contenders?
Matt Coyne, Once A Metro: They have to be, with all the talent on the roster. But, then again, so is everyone else; the MLS playoffs can be a crapshoot. Last year was a bit of an aberration with the LA Galaxy winning the Supporters Shield/MLS Cup double, but in 2010, the Colorado Rapids won as the east's third seed. In 2009, Real Salt Lake snuck into the playoffs on goal differential after ending the season in a three-way tie for the final playoff spot. In 2008, the Red Bulls were the ones who got lucky, sneaking in by a point, then knocking out the Houston Dynamo and RSL on the way to their first MLS Cup final where they got bounced by the Columbus Crew.
It certainly helps, as I mentioned before, how talented the Red Bulls are. Even before they brought Tim Cahill over from Everton, there was talk about them being the best on-paper roster in MLS history.
SB Nation New York: There have been soooo many changes to the roster this season, you pretty much need a new program every game. What, in your mind, is the Red Bulls' best starting 11?
Matt Coyne, Once A Metro: As much as I love being able to yell "GAUDETTE 3:16" after big saves from the St. John's product, Bill Gaudette (seriously, he looks just like Stone Cold Steve Austin), Luis Robles is coming off two clean sheets, so he has to get the start in goal. I'm not totally sold on Dax McCarty on the wing, but with Lloyd Sam's season over, McCarty provides a spark on the outside and is likely to play that role during the playoffs.
One wrinkle is the backline. The defense has been a bit of a revolving door. Wilman Conde was out the last two games with "personal issues" the team declined to elaborate on. But he's back in camp now -- ahead of schedule -- and if he's match fit, I fully expect him to get the start at left back. Rafael Marquez, shockingly, putting in two consecutive solid shifts at centerback, and he'll likely line up next to Markus Holgersson in the middle with Heath Pearce at right back.
Another interesting proposition would be flipping Pearce and Holgersson, as Holgersson has played right back with his old club in Sweden. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but would be classic Hans Backe.
SB Nation New York: Speaking of all of those changes, what acquisition do you think had the most positive impact? Which one left you scratching your had and wondering 'what did they do that for?'
Matt Coyne, Once A Metro: I have to admit, I love Tim Cahill and I think he's brought a ton to the team already, but the biggest was midfielder Lloyd Sam. They were missing outside speed after they swapped Dane Richards for Sebastien Le Toux, and Sam brought that. In the few games he's played, he's given the Red Bulls a completely new dimension to their game. Plus, Sam is a better technical player than Richards.
Unfortunately, Sam's done for the year. If you're looking for a new addition to watch in the semi-final round, I'd go with Cahill. He wins a ton of balls in the air, is great on set pieces, both offensively -- where sometimes his presence is enough to open up space for teammates -- and defensively. Oh, and his first public statement as a member of the Red Bulls was that he's "here to run through brick walls." So take that as a testament to his effort.
As for the guys who wear red and white on gamedays, I'm not sure there's been a negative addition or subtraction. Almost every move, at least on paper, made the team better. If I can get creative with an answer, it's the demotion/firing of GM Erik Soler. That was a move that should have happened in the off-season and created unnecessary distractions around the team while setting off a whole "will Backe be back or won't he?" thing.
SB Nation New York: The deciding factor(s) in the series vs. DC will be?
Matt Coyne, Once A Metro: I think it's going to be the first game of the conference semi-final series in Red Bull Arena. It's important to note for non-soccer fan readers that these series are home-and-home affairs with the higher scoring team over those two games moving on, not best-of-X. The Red Bulls are a very good home team and tend to score a lot of goals in the friendly confines of the Cathedral of American Soccer. If they can use that to their advantage, it means they can force D.C. to play from behind the whole game down in the swamp, since they have to at least match the scoreline to the first game to force penalty kicks.
The other side to that equation is the fan support. I know it's kind of cheesey thing to bring up, but statistically the Red Bulls play well when Red Bull Arena is full or close-to-full. The sole home game against D.C. was the first game to sell out this year. There's no reason they can't pack the house again, especially since the first game is a Saturday night at 8 p.m. against the team's most hated rival.
SB Nation New York: Can this be considered a good season for the Red Bulls if they don't win a title, or is it championship or bust?
Matt Coyne, Once A Metro: Three things: The Red Bulls have the league's highest payroll and two of the league's highest paid players. They've gone 16 years without any sort of major trophy (and there are three up for grabs every year). This is New York (Daily News Yankees cover anyone? Also, I can't type that without hearing the Geico gecko in my head saying that in that God awful accent).
In that context...absolutely not.
Thanks to Matt for taking a few minutes to help educate us about the Red Bulls. Stop by Once A Metro for more NYRB coverage.