Wednesday, July 21, 2010

With DPs on Their Way, Time for the Red Bulls to Clean House

When Thierry Henry steps onto the Red Bull Arena pitch tomorrow against Tottenham Hotspur, it will mark a major milestone for the New York/New Jersey MLS franchise.  With the arguable exception of Lothar Matthäus' brief, ignominious spell with the MetroStars, never before has a player of Henry's skill, pedigree and accomplishments pulled on a New York shirt.

Henry, who has been appearing all over local and national media since his arrival (sometimes successfully and sometimes with embarrassing results), should raise the quality of the team's overall play dramatically, even without the presence of a true attacking central midfielder.  Assuming that the Rafael Marquez to New York rumor also comes to fruition, the Red Bulls will boast three of the league's most skillful players in Henry, Marquez and Angel.  Add in solid MLS players like Lindpere, Ream and Kandji and you can start to see the nucleus of a very competitive team.  But what about the rest of the squad?  John Wolyniec has reportedly been released to make room for Henry and you would have to assume another player will be let go or traded if/when Marquez is signed.  Are there other areas of the squad where the Red Bulls could benefit from a little bit of judicious pruning or creative dealmaking?

Let's assume for a moment that Rafa Marquez will play the role a central defensive midfielder, a fair assumption given what we currently know.  That would leave the Red Bulls with at least three natural DMs - Stammler (pictured), Robinson and Marquez.  Hans Backe plans to use Stammler as a right sided midfielder in the Tottenham match, but he is not really cut out for that role.  Clearly, unless the Red Bulls suffer a DC United-like rash of injuries at the defensive midfield position, they will go into August with a surplus of DMs.  Though Robinson, with his $300,000+ contract, would seem the most likely player to be sacrificed, the Red Bulls are only on the hook for a portion of his salary, with Toronto picking up the bulk.  Stammler, an experienced MLS vet who is also north of $100,000, could be more attractive trade bait for MLS teams looking to bolster their rosters down the stretch. 

At the back, Andy Boyens, the Red Bulls sole World Cup representative, has barely stepped foot on the pitch.  With Tim Ream having cemented a place in the starting XI alongside a rejuvenated Carlos Mendes - and with Marquez, Mike Petke and perhaps even Kevin Goldthwaite available as cover - the Red Bulls could be in a position to either deal or cut a veteran defender. 

Up front, the arrival of Henry should mean fewer and fewer opportunities for Salou Ibrahim.  Though his goal return when he has played hasn't exactly been disastrous, Ibrahim's lack of fitness and generally clumsy play haven't done much to justify his $264,000 salary.  In fact at this point you could argue that Ibrahim is in the running (with Robinson) for the title of Most Overpaid MLS Player.  But size and strength are assets in a physical league like MLS, so there might be a club or two interested in taking a flyer on Ibrahim if the Red Bulls agree to pick up part of the tab (and if he can stay healthy for longer than a day or two).

Another major question mark concerns Brian Nielsen who, like Ibrahim, has been unable to stay fit since his arrival.  Unlike Ibrahim, however, I can't foresee a scenario in which Nielsen moves to another MLS club.  Either he gets healthy and plays for the Red Bulls or they cancel his rumored loan deal and send him packing back to Europe.

Whatever happens, the next several weeks should be interesting, as much for the new arrivals as it is for the players on their way out.  Integrating three DPs into the squad will necessitate some creative salary cap maneuvering from Erik Soler, but it will also give him an opportunity to reshape the team for the longer term, jettisoning some high salaries and making room for younger players like Juan Agudelo, Conor Chinn, Austin da Luz and Irving Garcia.  Here's hoping he takes advantage.
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