Guest columnist Drew Epperley is the founder and editor of WVHooligan.com. His blog covers everything MLS and U.S. Soccer. You can follow him on Twitter @WVHooligan.
For months fans have been waiting in anticipation of the new Major League Soccer season. FC Dallas will kick off the new campaign against the New York Red Bulls, in a repeat match of last year’s Wild Card playoff game.
March 11 has been a date circled on fans calendars since the First Kick schedule was released last fall. Now the 2 p.m. match - the first MLS game on NBC Sports Network - is finally here.
New York made several moves during the offseason to add to their star-studded roster - the biggest being former FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper.
Marquez suspended, Conde injured
Two of the bigger defensive names on the Red Bulls roster are unavailable for this season opener.
Defensive midfielder Rafa Marquez will be forced to watch from the sidelines while he serves his two-game suspension for his role in the postgame melee between New York and Los Angeles in last fall’s MLS Cup Playoffs.
If losing Marquez in the center of the midfield wasn’t enough for New York manager Hans Backe to deal with, the loss of a starting center back will be equally tough to manage.
Newcomer Wilman Conde was expected to slide into the center of Backe’s defense. He was brought in to make up for the club’s loss of US National Team defender Tim Ream to English Premier side Bolton.
Conde, however, is nursing a thigh injury that he picked up during the Desert Diamond Cup in Tuscan, Arizona last week.
Questions in goal
One of the biggest questions going into the new season for New York has been surrounding their goalkeeper situation. Backe went out and acquired two young keepers in the offseason in rookie Ryan Meara and Jeremy Vuolo, who comes over from AC Oulu in Findland.
Both keepers are young and lack experience in MLS but Backe is expected to start the rookie Meara. One interesting item to point out is that Meara suffered a broken nose last week in Arizona, he’ll be wearing protective gear to cover his face.
Midfield and defense
While the majority of the focus will be on Cooper and Thierry Henry up top, the midfield is where games are won and lost for New York.
The team’s most consistent player over the last two season has arguable been left-midfielder Joel Lindpere. The Estonian international scored seven goals and contributed seven assists in 2011. He always has a nose in the Red Bulls attack, and he’s particularly dangerous in wide areas.
On the opposite side of the field is another dangerous player in Jamaican international Dane Richards. The speedy right-midfielder brought in seven goals and seven assists in 2011. His pace and playmaking ability will be tough to deal with. Dallas players will have to be careful going forward and keep a watchful eye on Richards.
Teemu Tainio is expected to control things in the middle of the midfield. He is not a player that gets forward a whole lot, but he’s a solid distributor of the ball and can be a calm presence on the ball.
With Marquez out of the lineup, Backe will likely turn to another former FC Dallas player in Dax McCarty to start in the middle.
As far as the backline is concerned, it’s arguable the biggest weakness going into the new season. This leaky defense gave up 44 goals a season ago, the most of any playoff teams.
Ream departure and Conde’s injury means Backe will have to be creative with his back four. Stephen Keel will likely start at center back for Conde alongside newcomer Markus Holgersson.
At right back, Jan Gunnar Solli should get the start on Sunday. He started most of last season at right back, as he likes to get forward into the attack.
Roy Miller will likely resume his duties at left back. Miller was one of the more consistent players for New York in 2011, although he did pick up five yellow cards during the season.
Tale of the tape
Henry and Cooper should get the nod up top in Backe’s 4-4-2 set up. Both formed a solid partnership during the preseason.
Beyond Henry and Cooper, New York is fairly thin up top at the moment. English striker Luke Rodger is away while he sorts out a visa issue.
New York has a strong starting eleven, but Backe does not have much depth on the bench. The Red Bulls used their bench sparingly in 2011, mostly swapping out Rodgers for Juan Agudelo and then adding Medhi Ballouchy or McCarty to the midfield.