It's hard to sugarcoat what happened at the end of the Red Bulls' 2010 season.
Not saying their breakout regular season and Eastern Conference title wasn't impressive. It was. But at the end of it all, you had a team in a new arena, a goal up heading into the second leg of the conference semifinals. You had a team needing only a draw to set up a conference final in the best stadium MLS has ever seen.
And the Red Bulls fell on their faces, losing at home to a San Jose team they should have swept aside with ease. No conference final at Red Bull Arena. An offseason to reflect.
Saturday night, we get a first glimpse at what should be the best season in the history of the franchise that used to be called the MetroStars. Let's kick it off with two words:
No excuses from a team that's got Rafael Marquez and Thierry Henry, without a doubt the best tandem in league history when it comes to big-game experience and trophies won.
No excuses from a coach, Hans Backe, who's fun to be around and as quotable as anyone I've ever interviewed whose first language is not English. Backe has already said he's more interested in winning the Supporters Shield for the league's best record than the MLS Cup, which is the title the league puts the most stock (and money) in. Personally, I don't have a problem with Backe saying that the points title is the true indicator of who's got the best team. I happen to agree. What I do say to Backe is, "Go out and win it."
And, finally, no excuses from the fans who clamored for years and years that if you built them a great stadium in an urban environment -- a stadium that would be more accessible by train than by car, a stadium with great acoustics, a roof and a grass field -- they would come out and support this soccer team in the nation's toughest market to crack.
So far, quite frankly, as much as I've heard nothing but rave reviews for Red Bull Arena (aside from the normal Year 1 glitches), I have not been impressed with attendance.
In 15 years in MLS, no fan base has moaned and groaned more about the lack of star power and lack of attractive football and lack of winning (OK, maybe that's justified) than the fans in my native metropolis. If you are as true to the game as you claim to be, here's some novel advice: Support this team beginning this weekend. Don't wait around.
Seriously, when you look at the buzz that expansion teams have created, and the big-time atmospheres we've seen in places like Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia -- and what we're going to see in the coming weeks from Vancouver and Portland -- it certainly makes New York/New Jersey fans look like a bunch of entitled snobs.
That needs to end.
But will this team deliver? It should. The 10 field players are as good as any in MLS. You've got Marquez and American Tim Ream in central defense. You've got a nifty midfield distributor in Joel Lindpere, probably the fastest winger in the league in Dane Richards, and with Henry and youngster Juan Agudelo, an exciting strike force. In fact, if Henry is on, and attracts the attention of defenders, Agudelo could simply explode. It helps that Lindpere and Richards have shown a knack for scoring out of the midfield, because that keeps opposing back lines even more honest in the way they set up.
Choosing between keepers Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton probably won't be easy for Backe, but steadiness is really all that should be required from the Bulls' keeper. If the winner of the keeper battle can avoid the egregious mistake, all should be fine.
It all starts Saturday, and the Red Bulls are thrown a favor immediately, as they face a Seattle team that opened its season on Tuesday and had to fly cross-country. I would cut Sigi Schmid's Sounders a bit of slack because that turnaround is a legitimate excuse.
The Red Bulls are afforded no such luxury. No excuses this season.