Monday, February 28, 2011

Fringe Benefits: Analysing the Outskirts of the RBNY Roster

There has been much talk recently, including here on The Viper's Nest, about the size of the New York Red Bulls camp during pre-season. Despite the departure of first team regulars such as Juan Pablo Angel, Jeremy Hall and Sinisa Ubiparipovic since the end of the 2010 campaign, the number of players associated with Red Bulls has swelled to as much as the mid-thirties during January and February.

Our very own Homebrew posted an interesting article at the beginning of the month which discussed the current MLS roster regulations, the names currently on the books of New York and their salaries. One of the most important tidbits I took from the piece was the squad limit, which has been capped at 30. Right now the Red Bulls have 32 players associated with them, and Hans Backe has stated he is still in the market for one or two new additions.

It's clear that several players have no future at Red Bull Arena and will make way for fresh faces. With an idea forming from pre-season friendlies as to the set-up Backe is establishing, it's fair to say that around half of those in the camp are safe. They are either guaranteed starters, useful back-ups or impact players, making significant contributions to the team.

The other half, however, must be sweating over their place in the team. Everyone will have a different opinion as to those fringe players who should be shipped out and the ones that may still offer something. Here is my take on the five whose services should be retained, and the five we may be waving goodbye to.


Carl Robinson

It was recently announced that Carl Robinson had signed an extension and will remain at the club for the upcoming season. Despite the certainty over the Welshman's place, I wanted to discuss the merits of keeping him on board.

There have been some mumblings amongst fans as to why Robinson has been re-signed. He's 34, pocketed a $315,000 wage last year (which may or may not have been reduced in his new deal) and takes up an International slot. These issues, plus nagging injury problems and a slip down the pecking order suggest he isn't worth holding onto. I beg to differ.

Robinson isn't going to be a starter this term. In fact, he may barely feature. New York Red Bulls are especially heavy on midfielders, and Robinson is lurking somewhere between the middle and bottom of the list. He is strictly a central midfielder, particularly favouring a defensive role. In Backe's set-up, be it 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, there are limited slots available for Robbo.

With Rafael Marquez's move to defence, the ever-improving Tony Tchani seems to be the natural choice for the anchor role, floating in front of the defence, mopping up loose balls and relaunching attacks. Trialist Teemu Tainio could also play there, while Joel Lindpere, Medhi Ballouchy and new signing Jan Gunnar Solli are also capable of playing through the middle. Doesn't leave much hope for many appearances for Robinson.

Carl Robinson's contribution to the squad this year will be experience. Having played in England, for his national team and in MLS, Robinson is a veteran of the game. There is no better tutor for the likes of Tchani to learn from. If the rookie is to cement his place as the defensive midfielder, he ought to be nagging Robinson for all the tips he can get. Robinson will undoubtedly make a great coach one day, and that's the role he'll be playing this year.

Tyler Lassiter

We don't know much about the 2010 draftees, so I'll keep this one very brief. While midfielders are ten a penny in the camp, we're currently short on defenders. Mike Petke retired and Jeremy Hall was traded to Portland Timbers. There are still question marks about the full-back positions, while Roy Miller, Tim Ream and Marquez may all miss games while on international duty.

Hans Backe has claimed that Lassiter is further ahead in his development than Ream was at this point last year. And Ream was a revelation, playing every minute of the Red Bulls season and earning a Rookie of the Year runner-up nod for it. If Lassiter really is this good, he's an exciting prospect. He can play both at centre-back and left-back, so his ability and versatility should provide excellent cover.

Austin Da Luz

The 2010 draftees had very contrasting campaigns in their debut seasons. While Ream and Tchani were revelations, Connor Chinn, Irving Garcia and Austin Da Luz barely featured. Their handful of appearances largely came in US Open Cup competition, in which New York had to qualify last year. This year the Red Bulls receive a bye to the main stages, further limiting the prospects of fringe players.

Despite this, Da Luz may just have a future. He is a left midfielder by trade, a position we don't have a natural fit for. Brian Nielsen is injured (more on that later), and while Lindpere is a suitable option, he doesn't have the pace or flair to attack down the left like Dane Richards does on the opposite flank.

With the return of the reserve league Da Luz should get regular minutes, and use them to boost his skills and confidence and stake a claim for a first team opportunity.

Mehdi Ballouchy

Mehdi Ballouchy was surprisingly traded from Colorado Rapids near the end of the 2010 season, swapped for the useful Macoumba Kandji. While Kandji went on to play a significant part in the Rapids' MLS Cup success, Ballouchy hasn't quite had the same impact for his new team.

It started well with a debut goal away to FC Dallas to level the game. He remained a starter throughout the run-in, at the expensive of Red Bulls legend Juan Pablo Angel no less. Despite wearing the number 10 jersey and playing behind Thierry Henry, Ballouchy doesn't appear to be the creative midfielder many expected him to be. As such, fans are beginning to suggest that he has sharply fallen down the pecking order behind Lindpere, Tchani and Solli in the much-coveted central midfield slots.

I'm a big fan of Ballouchy, I like the way he plays and I think he's had a bigger impact than people give him credit for. He missed the Mexican stretch of pre-season due to visa issues, prompting many to suggest he could be on his way out. However he returned to the side against Fort Lauderdale Strikers, assisted Henry's early goal and got on the scoresheet himself late in the game.

Ballouchy may not be a guaranteed starter, but he's certainly an option. If a player like Ballouchy can only make the subs bench, it says a lot for the strength in depth of New York Red Bulls.

Jimmy Maurer

As with Lassiter, I'll keep this short and sweet. Jimmy Maurer was picked up in the Supplemental Draft, which immediately implies he doesn't command much prominence in any short or long term plans. However, you have to consider that Bouna Coundoul is a Senegal regular and Greg Sutton is nearing 34 years of age.

We have a capable (if unpredictable) number one and one of the best back-up keepers in MLS. But when Bouna Time is ticking on international duty rather than in league play, Maurer will be needed on the subs bench should anything happen to Sutton.


Salou Ibrahim

I always considered Salou Ibrahim and Macoumba Kandji far too similar players to co-exist in the same squad. As back-ups to Angel and later Henry, it was hard to choose one over the other as an impact sub or injury replacement. However, I felt that Kandji just offered slightly more to the team, and wish Ibrahim had been the player traded to Colorado in exchange for Ballouchy.

Instead Ibrahim is still in the squad. For now. Every time the roster size is mentioned, his name is the first put forward to be cut. It's very clear that he doesn't figure in Backe's plan; the head coach has hardly voiced his support for the player in recent interviews.

The signing of Luke Rodgers, emergence of Juan Agudelo and even the drafting of Corey Hertzog have pushed Ibrahim so far onto the fringes of the squad he may as well already be playing for someone else. I would be very surprised if he ever pulls on a Red Bulls shirt again.

Conor Chinn

I've already mentioned above that we now have three new striking options alongside Henry, as well as the likes of Ballouchy, Richards and Lindpere linking from midfield. There is little need for a lengthy list of forwards, and therefore Chinn's days must surely be numbered.

While fellow 2010 draftee Da Luz has a future in my eyes due to a lack of competition in his position, the opposite is the case for Chinn (pictured). While he registered a few goals in US Open Cup activity last year, he failed to break into a Red Bulls side short on attacking options. Now loaded up top, there appears to be very little reason to retain his services.

Irving Garcia

I must admit, I've never even seen this guy play. Having been drafted in 2010, he has made very little impact other than a US Open Cup assist. As a right winger, he's never going to displace Dane Richards from the side. I'd say he's even behind the likes of Solli and and Lindpere who are central players. 

As with Chinn, if he couldn't break into the team last year, it's not going to happen this year either. Got to go, I'm afraid.

Brian Nielsen

Brian Nielsen is an unfortunate case. Signed on loan from Danish side Vejle, Hans Backe looked to him to make an impact on the left wing. Nielsen certainly has the credentials; a Danish youth international from the under-16s age up until the grander stage of under-21s.

After making only two appearances for the Red Bulls, Nielsen suffered serious injury setbacks and hasn't played since. He is currently missing pre-season as he rehabs as part of the recovery process. While it may seem harsh, can New York really afford to be patient?

Nielsen earns a wage greater than key midfielders Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards, yet it's unclear if or when he'll ever pull on a Red Bulls jersey again. As well as a high wage he also takes up an international slot, and as a long-term injury sufferer Nielsen's squad place just cannot be justified. There is the argument that a fit Nielsen would invigorate New York and offer something different, but it's just too much of a risk to see if that's true.

Giorgi Chirgadze

I know very little about Chirgadze. I haven't seen him play, few fans talk about him and he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. I'm aware that he is a homegrown talent... and that's it.

Perhaps I'm harsh on young prospects. Having been spoiled with the immediate impact the likes of Ream, Tchani and Agudelo have made upon their Red Bulls careers, I expect youngsters to be hungry and determined to break into the team.

I don't even know what Chirgadze's status is. Is he injured? He hasn't appeared on any roster or team sheet that I've seen of. With Henry, Agudelo, Rodgers and Hertzog, is there any need at all for the most fringe of fringe players? Not that I can see.

(Glenn Williams also runs Major League Soccer UK, a website aiming to spread the word of MLS to British football fans)
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