Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Editorial: Juan Pablo Angel Deserves Better

In the hours leading up to the FC Dallas-New York Red Bulls game this week, rumors started to circulate from reliable sources via Twitter that there would be a surprise when the teams were announced at Pizza Hut Park.  And so it proved.  Juan Pablo Angel, who, when healthy, has been an automatic starter for the Red Bulls ever since his arrival in 2007, would be benched in favor of new arrival Mehdi Ballouchy, playing in an advanced midfield role.  In the end, Angel came on as a second half sub and was instrumental in placing pressure on the FC Dallas defense that led to Jair Benitez's game-tying own goal.  For his part, Ballouchy had a strong debut, scoring the opener and doing exactly what he was asked to do in Hans Backe's 4-4-1-1 system (or whatever we choose to call it). Angel, the consummate professional that he is, did not complain about being left on the bench and Hans Backe made it clear in his appearance on MLS Extra Time yesterday that it was a tactical decision, not one driven by fitness concerns.

As the Red Bulls build up to the playoffs and continue a string of challenging away games, you certainly can't fault Backe for experimenting with formations or even deciding to rest Angel, who is not getting any younger.  But Angel's omission pointed to a nagging issue that just won't go away - one that Ben Schneider and I discussed in this week's episode of Talking Bull: the very real possibility that the team's all time leading scorer, a model citizen and one of the best strikers to grace MLS will not be back in New York next season and may not be given the send off he deserves from Red Bulls fans. 

When Erik Solér and Hans Backe arrived in New York over the summer there was, to put it mildly, trepidation from various corners of the soccer media about two foreigners taking the reins in New York.  In the end, the appointments have proven to be astute.  Both have adapted well to MLS and, despite a few questionable signings, have made a series of smart personnel and coaching decisions that have the Red Bulls competing for the Eastern Conference championship just a year after nearly setting a record for futility.  Given their track record, I'm inclined to go with the flow and not question lineup decisions from game to game, much less contract negotiations.  On the other hand, Angel is not just any player.  He had been the face of the franchise for four years until he was recently displaced by Henry and Marquez, and was perhaps the only reason to come out to the stadium to see the Red Bulls during last year's shit show.  He is also a player who dedicated himself to a moribund New York franchise and MLS at a time when it wasn't the sexy thing to do and followed through on his commitment.

If the Red Bulls want to change things up next season and feel that Angel does not fit their plans then so be it, but let's have it made public one way or the other.  Even at his age, Angel still has a lot to give, whether in MLS or elsewhere, and his scoring record this season proves it.  In a year when so many longtime Red Bulls have announced plans to retire, the fans who have stuck with this franchise through years of terrible soccer at the Meadowlands deserve to at least say a fond farewell to one of the classiest players they will ever see.  And the man himself, the player whose name and number I wear proudly on the back of my replica kit, sure as hell deserves better too.
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