Continuity first: The Red Bulls made three offseason pick-ups this winter. Three! For any team, that's a quiet offseason. For a team with New York's history, that is absolutely unheard of. It's the first time the New York braintrust decided that chemistry – not flash – was what's missing. Giving this group another chance sure seems like the right idea.
Keep on holding on: Thierry Henry played a career-high (for MLS) 2519 minutes last season, and produced a very nice 10 goals and nine assists. Nice for most players, anyway. By Henry's standards ... well, it seemed readily apparent that he'd lost a step. He was still capable of magic, but wasn't able to pick his team up and carry them to results almost single-handed as he'd done for whole swathes of 2012.
Run through this: New York fans have been screaming for a "central attacking midfielder" pretty much since Amado Guevara took his last bows at Giants Stadium. While head coach Mike Petke initially said such a player would be his top target, he eventually backed off from that hunt, deciding instead to keep the flat 4-4-2 and attack through Henry, Tim Cahill and the wide midfielders. Good move.
Star Attraction: Tim Cahill
The pugnacious Australian landed in MLS with a thud in the second half of 2012, becoming noteworthy for finding new and extraordinary ways to blow open looks.
In 2013, he was legitimate MVP candidate.
So it goes with attacking DPs who arrive midseason (we saw it last year with the arrival of Clint Dempsey in Seattle). Most struggle to fit in immediately, and the best find a way to make it work – one way or another – in season two.
What worked for Cahill was a dual role, sometimes in his preferred central midfield spot alongside Dax McCarty. When the Red Bulls are on the front foot and Cahill's doing that job, he's one of the more fearsome and creative box-to-box midfielders in the league.
But where he really shined was as a false No. 9, playing off of Henry's brilliance, battling central defenders (see the GIF) and still managing to drop deep and help in possession. Cahill's a unique talent and the real ace in the hole, since his varied gifts allow Petke to change the shape of the attack without necessarily changing the shape of the team. Or even needing to make a sub.
Like Henry, however, Cahill's up against Father Time. Titi turns 37, and Cahill just turned 34. Petke will need to strategically rest both of them at points.
Probable Formation: 4-4-2
Major Acquisition: Armando Lozano
He wants to be called just "Armando," but I firmly believe you have to earn the single-name apellation. So he's Armando Lozano to me until he does something great.
But the thing is, the Red Bulls don't need him to do something great. They need him to be steady. They need him to be smart. They need him to be good in the air, and steady in reading the overlap and understanding when he'll need to drift right to cover for Richard Eckersley or left to cover for Roy Miller (can you believe he's still there?!?).
Mostly, though, they'll need him to understand that Jámison Olave is the conductor of the backline, and the risk-taker. Keep it smart, keep it simple, and keep it steady – just like Markus Holgersson did.
- SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
“It’s a lot easier if you’re a team that’s rebuilding completely or finished extremely low that you know you can take those chances. But like I said, I’m not about to disrupt the quality that I think we have in this team and the chemistry we’ve built up over a year to bring someone new that we think could be good but giving up something that is obviously valuable to us. It’s difficult within the league, but not impossible.”
Fantasy Pick: Lloyd Sam ($6.5m/ selected by 2.5 percent of teams) – Had five goals in roughly 900 minutes last season and could be looking at a full-time gig in 2014. With Henry, Cahill and others eager for him to contribute solid numbers offensively, Sam could be in for a breakout year.
Players to watch: Thierry Henry, Jámison Olave, Péguy Luyindula
The worry – always the worry – with the 4-4-2 is that you'll lose the central midfield possession battle through sheer numbers. That's why having Cahill as a false No. 9 is so valuable, since if New York start to get overrun, he can happily drop deep and morph the formation into something closer to a 4-2-3-1. Suddenly, New York go back on even terms in the middle of the park, yet still present the threat of Henry up front with productive and fairly creative players in Lloyd Sam and Jonny Steele on the wings.
It's a lot to account for, and a lot of rotations to master. New York were uninspiring at the start of last season, even when they went on their annual May winning streak (it seriously happens every year). But come the end of August, a switch was flipped and everything started to be crisp and instinctive. They looked like a team that trusted each other, not just a collection of talent that should be good on paper.
Will it get better in 2014? I think the midfield, consisting of the always-underrated McCarty, fringe US international Eric Alexander as well as Sam and Steele will improve, which was probably Petke's plan all along. And Péguy Luyindula showed himself to be a bit of an X-Factor, becoming the hero of the Supporters' Shield-clinching win over Chicago while playing as something close to a "central attacking midfielder." There's depth and flexibility to be exploited, and continuity to trust.
But so, so much depends upon how much Henry, Cahill and Olave have in the tank. Yes, there are guys like Bradley Wright-Phillips (a very useful player) and Ibrahim Sekagya in reserve, but the drop-off would be enough to knock this team from "Shield contender" to whatever the next tier is.
So New York fans should understand this: There's the opponent to worry about every week, but the greater battle is the one against the clock.