The latest development involving high-maintenance attacker Dwayne De Rosario hammers home a couple of important points.
First, the Red Bulls are in even better shape, supremely positioned to pursue a first MLS title. That's huge for a franchise that was such a lost, little puppy dog for so long. De Rosario has the capacity to wake up an offense that's been surprisingly prosaic so far, and the roster is brawnier for the trade last week that sent two role players to Toronto FC for De Rosario's game-breaking services.
In the bigger picture, last week's stunning swap reminds us of this: not all athletic prima donnas are in the higher profile sports. Even humble MLS has its share of cleated narcissists. De Rosario has always been one of them -- and now he's New York's issue to deal with.
De Rosario isn't a bad guy. He is adequate with media and connects with fans, beyond a couple of notorious incidents related to his salary appeals, at least. GMs and coaches who have employed De Rosario never fear the phone call in the wee hours of the night with reports of bad behavior. He's not a trouble child in that way.
De Rosario's chief flaw has always been a failure to accept an imperfect world. Specifically, he doesn't understand that a player's market value is his value. That's it. A set of disparate factors influence market value, everything from position on the field (forwards generally earn more than defenders, for instance) to age, to Q rating, the measure of marketing appeal.
De Rosario is worth the burden of his selfish side to a point. He's a quality player who rises to the occasion. Big game coming up? You definitely want "De Ro" on your side. That goes all the way back to his extra time game-winner in MLS Cup 2001. That was the first of his four MLS titles, proof that De Rosario's teams can and do win. En route, he landed on five MLS Best XI teams. He loves the splashy occasion, which is why the Canadian star tends to shine in MLS All-Star games.
So his perennial pursuit of greater green has some merit. But that constant craving for a DP deal eventually soured his relationship with Toronto FC, and De Rosario asked for a trade. Or they forced one on him. It depends on which version you believe.
"I've heard a lot of things about what Dwayne is saying, that he didn't want the trade or whatever," TFC coach Aron Winter said. "But what I want to be clear to everybody is that we had a very good offer for the first three years, and he was not happy with that, and then he came to us to ask to be traded, and that's the real story. We've made, I think, a good trade with him because we have opened up cap space to invest more to rebuild our team. And we have got two good players back. That was the reason."
So the stars are literally aligned in Harrison, N.J., straight down the middle of Red Bull Arena. Rafael Marquez has settled splendidly into his new home at center back. Thierry Henry will surely sharpen the edges of his game eventually. Now he'll have De Rosario threading passes and breaking down defenses with those signature dribbling bursts.
The Red Bulls attacking balance is immense. There's pace on the right in Dane Richards and industry on the left in Joel Lindpere. Precision, long-range passing from Marquez and Tim Ream, plus Juan Agudelo's speed and Henry's ability to see the game, can stretch defenses vertically. Now they have someone stronger than Mehdi Ballouchy to pull strings behind Henry and Agudelo. Coach Hans Backe thought it could be Ballouchy, but his time at Red Bull Arena has been a big bag of underwhelming.
Exciting, right? Then again, De Rosario's tireless pursuit of more money is the dark cloud that threatens to ruin the picnic. There's no reason to think he'll be any different in New York. In fact, there's one particular scenario that could seriously rock the Red Bull boat.
Henry and Marquez each earn about $5.5 million annually. De Rosario makes $445,000, less than 1/10th of his pricey new teammates. In Toronto, similar outsized salary disparities -- Julian de Guzman and epically failed DP Mista both earned significantly more -- became the pressure points that exacerbated De Rosario's dissatisfaction.
So what ill winds might blow through Red Bull Arena if De Rosario outproduces his far more expensive French teammate? Heads up: there is a decent chance that's going to happen.
That perennial chase for more is the reason De Rosario left Houston in 2008. So they shipped him to Toronto, where his dash for more cash prompted an insulting check-writing stunt last year. (De Rosario celebrated a goal at BMO Field by pantomiming the "writing of a check," embarrassing himself and the club in the selfish process. "Pay me more," he was saying -- never mind that the team wasn't even going to make the playoffs.)
A few months later, De Rosario further enraged the club and its fans by sneaking off to a trial with Celtic without informing management.
So, is that a guy who will stand by while Henry and Marquez cash checks 10 times larger than his? Doubtful. The slow burn of perceived inequity has probably already started. Remember, he wanted out at Toronto even though he wouldn't make a penny more in New York.
"I couldn't play unhappy," De Rosario said on a conference call last week. "You would expect them to keep their hometown boy as comfortable as possible. I didn't sense that."
But he thinks it might happen in New York? In the alignment of Red Bulls stars he's a clear third behind Henry and Marquez. Even if De Rosario has a phenomenal run, spraying goals, remaining healthy and instrumentally guiding New York to that elusive title, he has two option years remaining on the contract. Red Bulls management will remind him that 33-year-old forwards are on the decline rather than on the rise. De Rosario (32 now, but turning 33 in May) has probably reached his high-water mark in salary.
He seems tone deaf to those real world factors that drive contract negotiations. The Red Bulls are paying Henry for performance, of course. But they are also paying for the iconic brand, for that globally recognized name and face. That may be lost on De Rosario.
But that's symptomatic of entitled types. De Rosario is a fantastic MLS attacker, a real handful for defenders. Unfortunately, he's a habitual handful for his employers, too.