Commentary

MLS 2012 preview: New York Red Bulls

Updated: March 7, 2012, 8:06 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

Red BullsMike Stobe/Getty Images/New York Red BullsFor the talent-rich Red Bulls, anything short of reaching MLS Cup or winning the Supporters' Shield will be considered an epic failure this season.

2011 record and finish: 10-8-16 (fifth place in Eastern Conference)

Additions: D Connor Lade; D Jonathan Borrajo; D Markus Holgersson; F Kenny Cooper; GK Ryan Meara; GK Jeremy Vuolo; D Wilman Conde; M Victor Palsson; D Tyler Ruthven; M Brandon Barklage; F Jose Angulo; F Jhonny Ortega

Losses: GK Alex Horwath; D Michael Jones; D Tyler Lassiter; M Marcos Paullo; M John Rooney; D Teddy Schneider; GK Frank Rost; D Carlos Mendes; D Chris Albright; GK Bouna Coundoul; D Tim Ream; D Sacir Hot; M Matt Kassel

Key questions facing this team

1. Can the Red Bulls finally put it all together?

After a disappointing flameout in the conference semifinals in 2010 -- the first year of the Red Bulls' high-priced, star-powered makeover -- 2011 was supposed to deliver a championship. But after a 4-1-2 start, the wheels came off and the Red Bulls went 2-5-13 in an epic four-month slump. Although it's true they scraped into the playoffs, by then the Red Bulls had turned into a one-dimensional team with an offense that regressed into a clodding, primitive route one operation. Furthermore, chemistry was visibly bad as the team vacillated between trying to play a possession game and just collecting points.

In the playoffs, a conference semifinals matchup with eventual champion the Los Angeles Galaxy proved to be their last stop again. And yet, the Red Bulls gained a depth in midfield and up front this offseason that no other team in the league can compete with. Consequently, head coach Hans Backe has set his sights on winning the Supporters' Shield, the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup. Keeping in mind that last year he was aiming at winning only the Supporters' Shield -- a goal that proved far too lofty -- you wonder whether enough has changed for this grand experiment to turn the corner.

2. Will the defense hold up?

With midfielders Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio, Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards, Mehdi Ballouchy, Dax McCarty and Victor Palsson and forwards Thierry Henry, Luke Rodgers, Kenny Cooper and Juan Agudelo in the mix, the Red Bulls will want for nothing in those lines. The defense is another matter. Tim Ream was sold to Bolton Wanderers, and Backe confirmed that Marquez's move into midfield is permanent.

Stephen Keel, a career minor leaguer who was serviceable for the Red Bulls last year, is the lone experienced holdover in central defense. He will be joined there by Wilman Conde and Markus Holgersson. Conde was very good in a previous stint with the Fire but has been hobbled by injury, while European imports like Holgersson have a notoriously spotty track record in MLS. Yet at least one of them will have to prove himself in the Red Bulls defense for the team to be competitive, especially with wing backs Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller hell-bent on getting forward. So, too, concludes Backe.

"Our defense has to be much better," he said. "We conceded a number of goals not just from individual mistakes and unforced errors, but sometimes we defended too sloppy [last year], which we need to work on. For all successful teams, one of the main ingredients is to have a solid defense."

3. Who plays in goal?

Last season, the Red Bulls handed five different goalkeepers a start, none of them getting more than 11 chances. Now, all five have moved on, replaced by Ryan Meara (a draftee out of Fordham University) and Jeremy Vuolo, who spent a season in the second division of Finland after graduating from Syracuse. Both are supposed to be talented, but can the expensive Red Bulls afford to be backstopped by one totally or one mostly unproven rookie? "You never know, sometimes a good goalie just pops up," Backe thought wishfully. "Ryan and Jeremy are talented enough to perhaps take that spot. So far they've done well. We'll give them a chance."

[+] EnlargeRafa Marquez
Mike Stobe/Getty Images"If he has a good season, he will be a huge factor in midfield for us," manager Hans Backe said of Rafa Marquez.

Biggest X factor: Rafa Marquez

Sporting a disinterested look from the first time he set foot in Red Bull Arena, culminating in last year's very public criticism of his teammates, the team's high-priced Mexican designated player nevertheless holds considerable sway over the team's fortunes. The Red Bulls will rely on Marquez to play centrally in midfield, next to the holding midfield vacuum cleaner Tainio, and distribute to the wings and forwards. "If he has a good season, he will be a huge factor in midfield for us," Backe said. If he doesn't, the Red Bulls will be relegated to lumping high balls upfield again, the very strategy that derailed their 2011 season.

Breakout player to watch: Juan Agudelo

Watching him as a part-time player who made 12 starts and 15 substitute appearances in 2011, you got the distinct sense that Agudelo, 19, is just scratching the surface of his abilities. For him to make good on his talent, however, he'll need to climb up the depth chart. And he found himself even further down the pecking order after the Red Bulls acquired Cooper this offseason. But Backe has indicated that he's considering occasionally switching from his 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation, which could create a spot for Agudelo.

Outlook

If there were any excuses not to make the MLS Cup final in 2011, surely none remain in 2012. However, thin they are in the back and in goal, the Red Bulls are so stacked with talent elsewhere that failure will be intolerable. But banishing from the memory a season that turned sour as quickly as the last did one is never easy, and some teams never recover. This is a make-or-break year for the Red Bulls: Either make an appearance in the final, or break the team up and start from scratch.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.