Major League Soccer didn’t cut the Seattle Sounders FC any scheduling breaks early in the season — the team goes from losing to LA Galaxy at Qwest Field Tuesday to traveling across the country to face the new and ever-improved New York Red Bulls.
The LA Galaxy are one of the favorites to capture the Western Conference crown but the Red Bulls are expected to win the easier Eastern Conference, the Supporter’s Shield for best overall record and the MLS Cup.
Such are the heightened expectations for a team that carries French superstar Thierry Henry and Mexican international Rafael Marquez on its roster as two of the most expensive designated players in the league.
The two former Barcelona players (among other Euro club stops) are not the only reasons why observers pick the Red Bulls to go all the way, however.
The Red Bulls completed a worst-to-first turnaround in the 2010 regular season, but were then stunned on their home pitch in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, losing to the San Jose Earthquakes. The Red Bulls finished on top in the East in the regular season with 51 points and a 15-9-6 record — the third-best in MLS.
But the team that Red Bulls coach Hans Backe has assembled for 2011 is even stronger in all positions. Part of that is the fact Henry and Marquez have had a full preseason with the team. The younger players are more experienced, and Backe has balanced talented younger players with battle-tested veterans.
Marquez, for example, will be partnering with young American Tim Ream, in the center of the defense. Ream is a rising star for the U.S. National Team. Joel Lindpere pulls the strings in midfield with excellent passing vision and an appetite to score goals. Dane Richards is similar to Steve Zakuani — he is one of the fastest wingers in the league. Henry is likely partnering with the new U.S. striking sensation Juan Agedelo, who at 18 has been called up to the U.S. Men’s National team.
That’s just for starters. The rest of the squad is filled with experienced MLS role players — American and foreign. About the only question is who will start in goal. Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton continue to jockey for the No. 1 spot. Coundoul was among the top five goalkeepers in the league last season statistically, making 27 starts and enjoying perhaps his finest of his five years in the league. But Sutton has made a push for the top spot and Backe is expected to make the decision late Friday.
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid is aware of the dangers that the Red Bulls now bring to the league.
“Obviously, Dane Richards is always a guy you got to worry about because of his pace,” Schmid said. “Thierry Henry has now been there for a preseason so hes acclimated to the league. (Joel) Lindpere was a very good player for them last year. Hes a guy you have got to be aware of because hes got a major shot and hes got a way of sneaking into the box.”
The Red Bulls, Schmid said, are also a solid passing team, and with Marquez playing central defender, it makes them a “very good build-up team.”
But all eyes will be on Henry. The former Arsenal, Barcelona and French National team star is expected to control the fortunes of the New York club. You might say “so goes Henry, so goes the Red Bulls.”
Henry, 33, joined the New York team in the middle of last season, scored two goals and sat out more games than played due to injuries. Now fresh, revitalized and ready to play an influential role, Henry could prove to be a compelling story line this season. While most experts say he needs to score goals for the Red Bulls to win the MLS Cup, Henry is looking at his role slightly differently.
He wants to be more of the creator than the finisher. That certainly might raise eyebrows since he is Arsenal’s all-time leading goal scorer and led the London club in scoring for seven consecutive seasons. What’s more, he won the EPL Golden Boot award three times and the European Golden Boot three times. In his prime at Arsenal, there was no better finisher in the EPL if not in all of Europe.
But Henry said he is no longer thinking about the number of goals he wants to score. He now claims it’s about making his teammates better.
“You reach a time in your career where you want to make the guys around you play better,” Henry said recently on the Red Bulls web site. “We have Juan Agudelo and Dane Richards. Dane Richards is our go-to player. He always makes things happen on the field. We have guys with pace, so I dont mind playing a bit more in the middle and trying to fit people in.”
Henry, never shy to express himself, is offering his opinions about the MLS. So far he seems impressed with the growing qualities of a professional American soccer league that is still, well, developing and shaping its identity.
“MLS reminds me of a young version of the English premiership,” Henry said. “Guys are athletic here. They get into you, there’s a fast pace. But I was more than happy, too, to see a lot of teams want to play real football here. Dallas, Salt Lake, Galaxy, they pass the ball on the ground.”
Seattle is another team that likes to pass the ball on the ground and keep possession. The club signed Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales on Friday. He is a playmaker and a passer who is expected to enhance the Sounders’ emerging style of possession soccer. It’s unclear whether he will play on Saturday.
But it is clear to Zakuani what Seattle needs to achieve at Red Bull Arena — secure three points — particularly after suffering the loss to the Galaxy. The Red Bulls will be fresh since it’s their opening game but Zakuani said the Sounders need to enter the field confident, positive and expect to win the game.
“This is a perfect game to come back to,” Zakuani said. “It’s a game for us to go over there and spoil their party a little bit.”