MLS: Fanfare For Red Bull Arena A Distant Memory

Written by Ian Thomson

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of New York Red Bulls’ 3-1 win over Brazilian team Santos to mark the opening of Red Bull Arena.

A sellout crowd buoyed with enthusiasm reveled at the pre-game fanfare. They bristled with anticipation as a new Red Bulls management team vowed to lift the club from its last-place finish in 2009. Talk of superstar signings swirled around the Big Apple. How quickly that excitement has turned to familiar disillusionment for the club’s long-suffering fans.

Hans Backe’s reign as head coach started so well. Four wins from five games to start the 2010 season established the Red Bulls as title contenders. The summer arrival of Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez from Barcelona for a combined annual salary of $10.2 million suggested the team’s Austrian owners were serious about bringing success to the organization. New York ended the regular season atop the Eastern Conference and third overall only for San Jose Earthquakes to end their MLS Cup title tilt in the playoffs. Hopes remained high among supporters for further progress.

Three shutout wins over San Jose, D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City carried the Red Bulls back to the Eastern Conference summit at the end of April 2011. A 1-1 tie at Los Angeles Galaxy on May 7 gave an advanced preview of the MLS Cup Final, according to many commentators. Then the wheels spectacularly fell off the Red Bull wagon.

New York won just six of the remaining 26 games to finish in 10th place, in the bottom half of the overall standings but clinging to the final wildcard playoff spot. Backe, a professional soccer coach, apparently didn’t realize that a major international tournament would take away some of his players in June. Nor did he bother to attend his team’s U.S. Open Cup quarter-final game in Chicago when the Red Bulls stood within 270 minutes of lifting the club’s first trophy.

Backe’s mishandling of his starting goalkeeper saw him churn through five different players during the campaign. The creaking Henry whined about his sore Achilles and let his club down with petulant red cards in Portland and Kansas City. Marquez lurched from one lethargic, apathetic display to another before rounding on his teammates after a humiliating home loss to Real Salt Lake.

Any lingering hopes that the Red Bulls could somehow turn it around in the post-season quickly took a dive, along with Marquez, as the Galaxy easily ousted them in the conference semi-finals.

And so the Red Bulls approach this Sunday’s home opener against Colorado Rapids amid a palpable air of disenchantment. Two docile defeats on the road have the Red Bulls back where they were when Backe took charge. Expectations have been eroded to such a degree that the Swede now tries to pass off a dismal 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake as a good performance.

The fans will arrive full of optimism for Sunday’s home opener against Colorado Rapids, hoping that results will somehow pick up. It’s what New York’s fans do. They’ll also take onboard another year of misery and suffering if Backe, Henry and Marquez bungle through another insipid season.

It’s what New York’s fans do too.