Soccer America
Tuesday February 2nd, 2010

I'm going out on a limb to predict the Red Bulls won't be as bad with coach Hans Backe in charge as they have been in the past.

As a notorious underachiever in a monstrous market, New York has promised more and delivered less than any other MLS team. Players, coaches and executives have stood on podiums and pontificated of great things to come, only to scurry off after a year or two, if that, stung by failure and embarrassment.

So forlorn has this franchise been that sighs of relief emanated from RedBullville last August when a 1-0 victory over Columbus -- a second win in a row! -- ensured it would finish with more points than the downtrodden Tampa Bay Mutiny, who compiled just 14 points (4-21-2) during the shortened 2001 season.

By beating Toronto FC on the final day of the '09 season for their fifth victory, the Red Bulls topped the Mutiny and Chivas USA (also four wins) in its '05 expansion season among the worst of the worst. There really isn't anywhere to go but up, but that's not why I predict there are not only better times ahead, but also perhaps real success.

No, I haven't been seduced by their blistering start to the preseason, rolling through the likes of feared Eastern European powers CSKA Moscow and Lech Poznan with a tie and a victory, respectively, in friendlies during their visit to Spain. Nor do I buy into the premise that the new Red Bull Arena -- as marvelous as it quite likely will be as an audience destination and sponsorship magnet -- can automatically transform mediocrity into marvelous. Proof abounds in MLS, as per Colorado and FC Dallas in particular, that a stadium does not guarantee prosperity.

For the first time in New York's history, expectations are realistic. Rather than hire a veteran of many World Cups (Bora Milutinovic) or a man who has won one (Carlos Alberto Parreira, with Brazil, of all teams), it has a proper coach in Backe, a Swede who, by his own admission, is used to making do with modest resources. Red Bull Arena will be magnificent, not modest, but amid parity and a salary cap, Backe is more suited to success than most of his predecessors.

Assistant coaches Richie Williams and Des McAleenan should be able to steer him through the Byzantine world of MLS. The physical, robust style of play in Scandinavia is somewhat similar to MLS, though a long, hot summer and lengthy road trips will take some adjustment, as will the relative tactical naivety of the typical young American player and the Hispanic influence present on some rival teams.

Nothing definitive regarding wins and losses can be predicted from his calm, sensible demeanor at the SuperDraft, and the Red Bulls could improve significantly this season and still not make the playoffs. An ambitious expansion team in Philadelphia increases the league's membership to 16 teams, only half of which can qualify for postseason play. Right now, New York still looks more like an absentee than a participant come next November. But as it proved in '08, when it finished below .500 and still reached MLS Cup, it doesn't take all that much to get somewhere in this league.

With a long way to go, the Red Bulls seem pointed in the right direction. For this team, that's real progress.

Finnish trialist Toni Kolehmainen scored the winning goal Monday to give the Red Bulls a 2-1 win over Strømsgodset of Norway in the final game of their three-match visit to La Manga, Spain. New York finished the Spanish leg of its preseason with two wins and a tie. The Red Bulls are scheduled to return to the U.S. before the weekend.

Eighteen players turned out for the Red Bulls. Kolehmainen, a 21-year-old who attended Blackburn's youth academy and has played for two clubs in his birthplace of Oulu, got the winner in the 76th minute. Sinisa Ubiparipovic's free kick sailed to the far post, where John Agudelo knocked it back into the middle for Kolehmainen to hit into the top corner.

Agudelo, a product of the Red Bulls academy program, attended the U.S. Soccer U-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Fla., and made one stoppage-time appearance for the U.S. at the U-17 World Cup last year. He reportedly has been offered an MLS contract by the Red Bulls and is also considering a move to Colombian club Millonarios, with which he trained last month. Agudelo replaced Macoumba Kandji in the second half.

New York took a 1-0 lead against Strømsgodset in the third minute when Alexander Aas tried to clear a Dane Richards cross but diverted it into his own net instead. Juan Pablo Ángel twice threatened to increase the lead -- he shot an early chance over the bar and, in the second half ,Strømsgodset goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey parried his free kick.

Strømsgodset equalized in the 54th minute when Joel Riddez got loose in the penalty area and fired a shot past substitute goalkeeper Greg Sutton. The former TFC keeper is on trial with New York and replaced Bouna Coundoul at halftime. Sutton also stopped Marcus Pedersen prior to Kolehmainen's equalizer, and afterward collected a long shot from Riddez.

With six minutes left, Pedersen chipped a shot over Sutton that rebounded off the post.

After returning to New York, the Red Bulls will train for about a week before heading to Florida on Feb. 15. They are one of four MLS teams participating in the Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic in Lake Buena, Fla., on Feb. 25 and 27.

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