Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Red Bulls Squad Takes Shape With Opener on Horizon

Arteaga: Among the Successful Trialists
The New York Red Bulls are expected to make their final series of squad cuts and signings this week, leading up to their March 11 kickoff against FC Dallas, the first MLS game to be shown on the newly-branded NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus). Rumors on Facebook and Twitter indicate that among the RBNY trialists putting pen to paper will be former FC New York standout Jhonny Arteaga, forward Jose Angulo and central defender Tyler Ruthven, who spent last season with Atlanta Silverbacks. The Red Bulls are also likely to add a third keeper, after giving up on their pursuit of Luis Robles. With plenty of room to maneuver under the MLS roster maximum of 30 players, other trialists - such as Ryan Maduro and Giorgi Chirgadze - may be added as well.

[UPDATE: The Red Bulls made the Angulo, Arteaga and Ruthven signings official this afternoon. They have also added midfielder Brandon Barklage, formerly of D.C. United]

The biggest  date for the Red Bulls this week is Thursday the 8th, when they are expected to learn the fate of Luke Rodgers, still stuck in visa limbo due to an unspecified incident in the past. If Rodgers is unable to secure a work permit after his meeting at the U.S. embassy, RBNY will lose one of the lynchpins of their 2011 squad - a real punch to the gut just days before First Kick. For now, Hans Backe will have to plan for the first half dozen games without Rodgers, regardless of the outcome of the visa hearing. If Rodgers is able to return, it could be a month or more before he is back to fitness. In the meantime, Kenny Cooper and Juan Agudelo will be expected to pick up the slack.

Another player who will be missing from the Red Bulls squad - at least for the first two games - is Rafa Marquez, who will be serving the remainder of his suspension for last year's playoff incident involving Landon Donovan. With Victor Pálsson's health still a question mark, Backe's options in the center of the park will be limited against FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. If the often-injured Teemu Tainio limps off the field, Backe could be facing a mini crisis at the central midfield position even before the home opener.

As players and fans get ready for the season to begin in earnest, predicting where the Red Bulls will finish in the Eastern Conference is no easy task. Given all the team's struggles in 2011 and the club's history of epic underachievement, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that none of the experts chosen to participate in the Guardian's MLS preview - including Empire of Soccer's own Dave Martinez - chose RBNY as the conference champion. The Red Bulls' lack of clear #1 goalkeeper, Rodgers' uncertain visa status and lingering health questions about Wilman Conde are all legitimate concerns, as is the club's failure to add a legitimate creative midfield presence, with Erik Solér electing instead to defer the addition of a third designated player until the summer transfer window.

Facing FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake away from home in successive weeks won't be the easiest of starts for Hans Backe and company. If they can get a positive result or two and return to New Jersey with at least a few points to show for their travels, they will have done well. Two early losses - an entirely conceivable scenario - could have fans and media piling the pressure on Backe and Solér early. On the other hand, while the schedule makers did the Red Bulls no favors early in the 2012 season, they will be done with a number of tricky away fixtures by the time midsummer arrives and should benefit from a run of late season home games (assuming they are still in the thick of things by September). 

The Red Bulls have a number of events planned for MLS' opening weekend, including another "Fan Fest" at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. This will be followed on Sunday by a VIP event for Red Card season ticket holders at Red Bull Arena. For those not able (or eligible) to make it out to either event, our good friends at Seeing Red! will be recording their podcast live at the Football Factory at Legends, leading up to the FC Dallas game, complete with special guests and giveaways. The Garden State Supporters will also be hosting a season kickoff bash at MMM Bello's in Newark, if you happen to be in the area.
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