Thursday, April 12, 2012

Inside the Numbers

What Will the Numbers Reveal About the Red Bulls?
In modern sports, jersey numbers are used to identify individual players regardless of their position. For a while, the NFL had certain groups of numbers assigned to positions (e.g. single digits for kickers and QBs, low eighties for tight ends and receivers, etc.) but that has loosened up in recent years. Soccer is unique in that the numbering system started as a way to identify certain positions on the field, not the players themselves. Eventually some numbers grew to be associated with the skills valued in those positions—notably the #10 of the creative midfielder.

That has, of course, changed over time as squads expanded and as players showed preference for their own lucky numbers. The position associations have also evolved as soccer adopted the 4-4-2 as the standard formation. With this perspective in mind, let’s take a look at jersey numbers of current Red Bulls players and how they match up to soccer tradition.

The Red Bulls have no #1 on the roster. Whether this absence reflects coach Hans Backe’s confidence in rookie Ryan Meara is debatable, but if his solid performance keeps up, the fans would certainly accept Meara wearing #1.

New York is most traditional with jersey numbers on defense—but it is still very limited. First things first: reserve player Jonathon Borrajo wears #3, traditionally for the left center back. Is it a travesty that a single-digit number is worn by a player who may never see the field in an MLS match? Maybe.

By all rights, the #3 is the left back’s number and should be worn by Roy Miller, who is currently wearing #7, which (following tradition) should be worn by the left wing, Dane Richards, who currently wears #19. Of course, Roy Miller often seems to be more comfortable in a winger role than on defense. Quite a mess, but it gets worse.

Jan Gunnar Solli should be wearing #2, rather than his #8, which should be worn by the striker-supporting midfielder—in New York’s case, probably Dax McCarty, who fits the on-field role more than Teemu Tainio. As with Miller the jersey number reveals some truth about Solli’s offensive tendencies.

Conde wears (Solli’s) #2, but he should be wearing #6 as the left center back. Sure, he could slip into the #5 jersey often worn by the key man in the back line, but that seems to fit Holgersson as it is more associated with the right center back and sometimes the sweeper role, which often went to the biggest body on the pitch whose main job was to blast loose balls up the field or crunch the opposition’s striker.

Rafa Marquez is one of the very few Red Bulls wearing the number that tradition dictates. #4 is the holding midfielder. You can argue that Rafa plays more of a distribution role on the team, but he really is the bridge between the defense and midfield and, I’d argue, the only midfielder with the ball skills to really play this role effectively. More importantly, #4 is often associated with the libero position. Sure, Rafa doesn’t play as far back as most liberos, but he certainly has the freedom associated with that role.

Teemu Tainio wears the defense’s #6 but should be wearing #8, if anything. As mentioned above, Dax fits the traditional #8 better than Tainio. But, as you’ll see below, neither will be wearing #8 any time soon.

We’ve covered Dane. Then there is his counterpart, Joel Lindpere, #20 who, as the left side winger, should be wearing Dax MacCarty’s #11.

That brings us to New York’s #10 and future MLS Hall of Famer, Mehdi Ballouchy. A few short weeks ago, the fact that Baloouchy wore #10 induced vertigo. However, after helping engineer a goal against Colorado and a standout performance in Columbus…  My confidence isn’t high but I have to concede that Mehdi is starting to earn the #10, and all of the associations that go with it—at least on this team. A Stephen Ireland arrival could end that quickly.

The strikers are a mess with not one wearing a number below 12. In the traditional scheme, Henry would be wearing the #9 and Kenny F’in Cooper the #8, which evolved to be associated with the second striker when the 4-4-2 took over.

So here’s what a traditionally numbered starting XI would look like for the Red Bulls:

#1 Ryan Meara
#2 Jan Gunnar Solli
#3 Roy Miller
#4 Rafa Marquez
#5 Markus Holgersson
#6 Wilman Conde
#7 Dane Richards
#8 Kenny Cooper
#9 Thierry Henry
#10 Mehdi Ballouchy
#11 Joel Lindpere

Sorry, if you were expecting some great truth. There's no Kabbalah-istic hidden meaning in these numbers, but I hope you enjoyed this diversion from the norm.
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