By Michael King
It seemed like an innocuous question. Something closer to standard in-studio fare than a probing inquiry – just there to fill the void between halves on ESPN during Tuesday’s United States-Columbia exhibition match.
But when former U.S. defender and prominent ESPN soccer personality Alexi Lalas asked fellow half-time analyst Juan Pablo Angel if he planned to return to the New York Red Bulls next season, the midfielder responded with a surprising and puzzling, “I probably won’t.”
ESPN’s rapid move to cram in a few more commercials before the start of the second half prevented further questioning.
So we’re left to wonder exactly what’s going on between Angel and the Red Bulls.
This news evidently comes at a bad time for the Red Bulls, who are presently in pole position in the East and poised to secure the conference’s top seed for the playoffs. With two games left in the regular season, coach Hans Backe does not want questions over his prized forward’s contract status distracting the team.
But some of Backe’s recent coaching decisions reflect Angel’s displeasure. The former Aston Villa player failed to see the field until the 63rd minutes of the squad’s 2-2 draw against FC Dallas on Sept. 16.
This impending fate seems inappropriate for one of the league’s most accomplished players. Angel spent the better part of four seasons playing for the Red Bulls, maintaining a substantial role in building the team into a league power. With 58 goals, he also is the Red Bulls all-time leading scorer.
On the field, Angel is the team’s captain and one half of the team’s strike partnership with recently acquired Thierry Henry. Angel also brings a unique dynamic to the pitch with his deadly accuracy on set pieces.
His 13 goals this season are a testament to his offensive ability. However, it’s become apparent to some that his style doesn’t quite meld with Henry as the team hoped when it signed the Frenchman during the summer.
The Red Bulls, remember, are also under new management, which may have a different direction for the club planned. From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to make Henry the sole face of the franchise. Henry’s unparalleled success in Europe and at the international level makes uniquely positions him to propel the franchise toward becoming the biggest club in the MLS.
Therefore, it makes sense to find players to get the ball to Henry, rather than highly compensating another player who reduces the former Arsenal star’s touches.
In fairness to the Red Bulls, not only is Angel, 35, one of the league’s highest paid players (about $2 million per year), he is also one of the oldest.
Another obvious consideration for the Red Bulls is Angel’s status as one of the team’s three designated players. Not resigning the Colombian forward could allow the team to sign another European superstar to pair with Henry and defender Rafael Marquez, since the current MLS collective bargaining agreement allows three designated players per team.
The consequences of Angel’s apparently impending departure are debatable for the Red Bulls. But the consequences for the league could be greater. With his unique combination of offensive ability, recognizable persona and classy leadership, the MLS must retain Angel.
In addition, the Colombian seems to play his best when the spotlight is greatest. During his first MLS All-Star game in 2007, Angel scored against Celtic, earning Man of the Match honors.
More recently, Angel played a spirited first half and nearly scored on several excellent chances in the 2010 All-Star game against Manchester United. He was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise dismal performance for the league in a 5-2 drubbing.
And don’t dismiss what Angel brings to the table in terms of star power. America loves stars; though perhaps more accurately, individuals who excel at team sports. One of the keys to building the league’s success is the development of multiple, talented personalities who bring the MLS to the fans. David Beckham and Henry arrived in the MLS with their international soccer credibility and immense fame.
Though, the type of salary Angel commands makes him an unlikely fit for most teams. However, a team such as the New England Revolution – with a wealthy owner and a current squad starved for goals – could be a potential suitor.
The MLS has made significant progress in recent years in terms of popularity through the signing of well-known players and an improvement in the overall quality of play. To maintain this success, though, the league needs to find a team for Angel and keep his presence in Major League Soccer.
Michael King is a contributing writer for TheSoccerGuysOnline.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.