By Kevin Koczwara
Manager Hans Backe and the New York Red Bulls had a lot of work to do last winter after a dismal 2009 season that saw the team finish with Major League Soccer’s worst record (5-6-19). Last night all the hard work paid off as the team clinched its second regular season Eastern Conference Championship in club history – the first in 10 years.
“There was just room for improvement. We couldn’t do worse than last year. We just came in and worked hard, and we [qualified for the playoffs],” said Red Bulls midfielder Dane Richards after defeating the New England Revolution, 2-0, Thursday night. Richards scored the game-winning goal. “It’s not over yet with the playoffs. Hopefully we have three more games left, and we can go all the way with it.”
New York transformed from a struggling club in a hot bed of soccer to an ideal place to play in less than a season. Much of the transformation had little to do with the the big offseason and midseason moves that littered headlines.
New York attracted former Barcelona aces and international soccer stars Rafa Marquez – Mexico’s captain – and Thierry Henry because the team has a close proximity to the Big Apple, a beautiful new stadium and the promise of success. Winning attracts high-caliber players looking to close their careers with a bang, and the signings of Marquez and Henry make the top team in the east a favorite to win the MLS Cup this year.
The Red Bulls quick ascent, something the MLS officials have been dreaming of for some time, has been anything but gradual. New York finished 2009 dead last in the MLS with a 5-19-6 record and an astounding minus-20 goal differential (47 goals allowed, 27 goals scored).
This season, the Red Bulls finished at the top of the Eastern Conference with a 15-9-6 record and a plus-9 goal differential (38 goals scored, 29 goals allowed). New York tripled its win total from last season and much of this season’s success was due in part to the team’s quick start. The Red Bulls won six of its first seven games, more than the whole of last season.
“The key was the first six games, when we won five out of six and kept going,” said Backe after the Red Bull’s win over the Revolution. “It’s phenomenal to get 30 points more than last season. I think, normally, you can’t see any team in the world double their points in one season – it’s impossible to do that. And to get 30 points more, 10 more wins, less conceded goals, also for the background staff, everyone working with the team, it’s been excellent.”
A major part of New York’s early success this season has to do with the signing of Estonian international midfielder Joel Lindpere before the team kicked off its season in a friendly with Brazilian powerhouse Santos at the newly constructed Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Lindpere has been the cog in the Red Bull midfield, pulling the strings, controlling the pace of play and winning the ball back. Lindpere made a name for himself in his first appearance for the club as he scored the team’s first goal in Red Bull Arena in the friendly with Santos. The 29-year-old’s goal ended up clinching the victory for the Red Bulls, and they never looked back.
Lindpere made the MLS all-star team, scoring three goals in 29 appearances and brought a much needed edge to a team in search of an identity after last season’s struggles.
“He’s been our most consistent player this season. I would say every game, his work ethic is phenomenal,” said Backe after the Red Bull’s win over the Revolution.
Lindpere’s season came full-circle in the match as he put the final touches on the 2-0 win over the Revs with a stoppage time goal.
Lindpere and the Red Bulls are now heading into the playoffs for the first time since 2008 when they constructed a run to the MLS Cup finals, only to lose to the Columbus Crew, 3-1.
New York’s prized striker and captain Juan Pablo Angel may be playing his final games in a Red Bull jersey despite being the team’s all-time leading goalscorer (60 goals in 108 matches), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t working hard or settling after helping the team secure the top seed in the east.
“We need to finish it off well. We don’t want to disappoint ourselves, because we’ve worked so hard. But we know we have a big challenge ahead,” Angel said. “We have to correct the things that we need to correct, and because of the formula of the league, anything can happen. We have to be our best from the beginning, because we don’t want to miss out on this great opportunity.”
For Angel, winning the MLS Cup would cement his popularity and image as a New York soccer legend and remind the rest of the league how good he has been since joining the Red Bulls from Aston Villa in 2007. Angel’s stock happens to already be pretty high, but adding an MLS Cup to his resume could get him his second Designated Player contract somewhere other than New York.
But, for now, Angel and the Red Bulls will be looking to make a playoff push in the MLS Cup as the Big Apple’s team hopes to claim its first-ever MLS Cup for the supportive fans who stuck by their side in 2009.
“Last year we were thanking the fans, and we were going to go home,” Richards said. “This year, we’re thanking the fans to come and support us in the playoffs, so that’s a great feeling.”
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.