Few would disagree that last year's New York Red Bulls were a tremendous disappointment. The acquisition of French legend Thierry Henry, joining a cast of international players including Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, and Joel Lindpere (and briefly Dwayne De Rosario), was supposed to make the Red Bulls the LA Galaxy of the Eastern Conference.
Indeed, the Red Bulls had the highest payroll of any MLS team in 2011, a full million dollars more than the Galaxy. Certainly a recipe for success, right?
Instead, the team barely managed to sneak into the playoffs, claiming the tenth and final spot. Booing Marquez became commonplace at Red Bull Arena (and continues to this day). And the management team of Erik Soler and Hans Backe was routinely lambasted for its poor organization, with media pundits assuming the latter would be fired at the season's end.
Many Portland-based observers expected more of the same in 2012, after they lost Tim Ream, Frank Rost, and Luke Rodgers, while gaining Kenny Cooper and keeping Backe as head coach. And indeed, with a rather poor defense that often still featured former Timber Stephen Keel, they allowed 14 goals in their first seven matches and still have allowed more than any other non-Canadian Eastern Conference team.
But whatever they lacked at the start of the season, they more than made up for. In spite of the defensively suspect stretch at the start of the season, they still managed to escape April with a 4-3-1 record, and they have only improved since. All that talk about Soler and Backe have faded far away.
The additions of Sebastien Le Toux and Tim Cahill in the middle of the pitch have improved an already staunch midfield that includes Estonian international Joel Lindpere and Dax McCarty. The latter, a Portland Timbers expansion draft pick, has been quietly making himself indispensable in his star-studded lineup -- even attracting some MVP talk.
Defensively, too, they are much better than they were at the start of the season, largely due to the accelerated maturation of rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara, as well as the addition of Heath Pearce. Ryan Meara's hip injury will keep him out of the game against Portland; he'll be replaced by Bill Gaudette, who has his own claim to fame in Timbers lore.
But certainly the part of the Red Bulls' 2012 success that most rankles Timbers fans is the striker pairing of Kenny Cooper and Theirry Henry, who account for 24 of New York's Conference-leading 40 goals this season. Sigh.
On paper, the 2012 Red Bulls are perhaps only slightly improved from their 2011 roster. In reality, though, they have become one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference, now tied for second place in the standings behind Sporting Kansas City -- just five points shy of their 2011 season total.
All of which would be really impressive if they hadn't so woefully underperformed in 2011.