Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bullseyes on the Prize

Frank Rost: The Answer to RBNY's Goalkeeping Problems? We'll See.
The signing of a third designated player ought to be an occasion that inspires the New York fanbase with confidence and appreciation for the club’s management.  However, in the wake of the humiliating 4-0 exit from the US Open Cup at Chicago Tuesday night, the mood in Metroland is anything but pleased. Instead, despair at watching (or more precisely listening or reading) yet another shot at a title (any title!) slip away has turned supporters sour. Don’t talk to me about the Atlantic Cup, the announcement of which after ninety minutes this past Saturday sounded nothing more than an embarrassing insult as it was drowned out by the singing of Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles. After the devastating loss at home to the Scum, the news from the Windy City only salted deep and festering wounds.
And so the morning after, as we’re still digesting the news of our Open Cup humiliation (Ballouchy as captain, seriously?), the introduction of Frank Rost, formerly with Hamburger SV, as a cure for our goalkeeping woes, has had minimal effect on those of us who love the club, so desperately in need of a lift in spirits. Given the depth of talent at the position domestically, do we really need an out-of-contract thirty-eight year old German to take the remaining Designated Player spot?  While the terms and conditions of Rost’s contract are undisclosed, we know that as the third DP (arriving midseason), he counts towards $167,500 of the available room under the salary cap and that RBNY must pay an additional quarter of a million dollars to the league (distributed equally as allocation money among all the other franchises who don’t have a third DP, that is, to all except the Galaxy and Toronto). 
Is Rost worth such a high cost? There’s no question that he is an outstanding, world-class goalkeeper.  He is perhaps most well-known as one of only two goalkeepers to ever score in the Bundesliga from the flow of play. The other? Jens Lehmann. And that brings us to the crux of the matter: given the high cost, a Designated Player shouldn’t solely serve personnel needs. A good DP has to be more than just an impact player. A DP has to attract attention.  A DP has to get more butts in the seats. A DP has to be a star.

I’m still not convinced that neither Coundoul nor Sutton is qualified to lead us to a title. Both have at times demonstrated talent and athleticism.  Both have shown the ability to make the miracle save. So why are we in such a crisis mode, in a panic to fix problems at the goalkeeper position? The answer’s simple: we never should have fired Des McAleenan. I don’t care if Des blew bong hits in Backe’s face (not to say that’s what he did), he should have been retained. He has proven himself the most successful goalkeeping coach in MLS, perhaps second only to Tony DiCicco in terms of domestic reputation. We’ve enjoyed the likes of Tony Meola, Zach Thornton, Mike Ammann,  Jonny Walker, Ronald Waterreus and Jon Conway between the pipes. And since 2002, with Des responsible for ensuring safe hands protected our goal, indeed since this club’s inception until this season, goalkeeping has never seemed a weakness.    
Few, if any, are ever going to schlep out to Riverbend to see Bouna or Sutton, but how many New York sports fans bought tickets having learned that we’ve signed Rost as our third DP?  The aforementioned other available German goalkeeper would have done just that. To reunite Thierry Henry with any of his teammates from Arsenal’s Invicibles would be to raise the profile of the team not just locally but especially globally. Having seen Lehmann this past spring when he rejoined the Gunners, he’s still got it, and throughout their careers, he’s been identified as a more talented keeper than Rost. 
I’ll confess that my affection for the Arsenal (the club I came to love in the years between the NASL and MLS) colours my view of the situation, as it does my opinion on the Emirates Cup.  The logic this week among supporters angry over the Open Cup loss has been that Red Bulls management is more concerned with the “competition” in north London than they are with winning our oldest domestic title. But I think the signing of Rost is proof to the contrary. If all that mattered to Red Bull was marketing the brand at the Emirates Cup, surely Mad Jens would be a Bull today.
Fixture congestion is no rationale to choose between the Open Cup and the Emirates Cup.  It’s even less of a reason for the head coach not to bother traveling with his team.  For only fourteen players to be made available in a competitive match is mind-boggling, especially for a club that’s yet to taste a domestic title. Will we be similarly humbled in London? Let’s hope not, though winning the Emirates will merely mean as much as winning the Atlantic. Not a jot. With the Kemsmos fulfilling fantasies at the Theatre of Dreams, the chance to show the world who truly represents New York at the Home of Football is a wonderful opportunity that should be welcomed. But that’s still no reason to blow such a great shot to win the Open Cup, no excuse to treat a domestic title like trash.
It could be worse. We could have lost our first ever Big Apple Derby. At least the Open Cup loss was on the road to another MLS side. 
But we need to make it clear what prize matters most to us. And by “us” I mean both management and supporters. Is it simply to raise the profile of the club?  Locally and/or globally? When Backe said preseason that the objective was the Supporters Shield, reactions were mixed. Noble as such an aspiration might well be, it no longer seems achievable. We’ve just kissed away the second of the three away and supporters need to be vocal now and let management know loud and clear that the US Open Cup is a trophy we crave desperately. Attendance vs. FCNY might be evidence to the contrary, but in various media, banners at the South Ward, emails and calls to ticket reps, and informal conversations to any and all who will listen in the halls at Harrison we need to make ourselves heard on this issue. 
MLS Cup remains the top prize and we still must be considered among the favorites.  As we learned in our very first trip to the playoffs back in 1996, failure in pursuit of that prize isn’t something we have complete control over. The Open Cup was only three wins away. We’re many, many wins away from a shot at lifting the MLS Cup.
What we can control is our quality. And that, frankly, is something we can learn from our trip to London at the end of the month. While some might want to mock us as the Arsenal of MLS, that’s not bad at all. Arsenal represent an aesthetic approach to the game, one that prides itself on style and technical brilliance, that appreciates process as much as product.  Hans Backe’s friend Arsène Wenger might well have fielded a squad of reserves in a domestic cup tie, but he’d damn well be there to ensure they played well and defended the club’s honor.  
And that’s the real travesty of both our Open Cup exit and our signing of our third Designated Player. We embarrassed ourselves by neglecting to field a quality side in Chicago. And we missed the chance to add a quality playmaker, one who would lift both the team’s profile and standard of play.  Regardless of whether or not we break our trophy drought, we should commit to playing the most thrilling, free-flowing version of the Beautiful Game on these shores. Do so with verve, and not only will the core fanbase be pleased, a consistent commitment to excellence will gain this club the attention it needs in this overcrowded sports and entertainment landscape. Being the best team in MLS won’t guarantee we lift the MLS Cup come November. The losses of the past week and our most recent DP signing both show us all we’ve still a long, long way to go before we claim that lofty and elusive prize of being known as the best team on the continent, one that pleases hardcore supporters and neutrals alike. That should be our bullseye.

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