We've all been waiting to see which MLS team would make a blockbuster move before the July 27 transfer deadline. The Red Bulls didn't disappoint.
MLS reportedly has agreed on a transfer fee that allows New York to acquire midfielder Tim Cahill from Everton of the English Premier League. This comes a little more than a week after New York made a trade with Vancouver for forward Sebastien Le Toux, and those upgrades make the Red Bulls the team to beat in MLS.
Cahill, a 32-year-old Australian international, has arguably been the most consistent player for the Toffees since arriving in 2004, amassing 68 goals in 278 appearances. Known mostly as a hard-nosed, two-way central midfielder, Cahill adds superior aerial prowess as well as a killer instinct in front of the goal. He'll be yet another weapon for a potent attack that already boasts two of MLS' top four goal scorers (Kenny Cooper, 13; Thierry Henry 10).
Now the pressure is on New York to deliver. Head coach Hans Backe certainly can't complain about a lack of support from ownership or management. Cahill is expected to become the Red Bulls' third Designated Player, joining Henry and Rafa Marquez. New York would match the L.A. Galaxy (David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane), Seattle Sounders (Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez), and Toronto FC (Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans, Eric Hassli) as the only MLS teams with 3 DPs.
But the arrival of Cahill now begs the question: With all this new talent, what will be Backe's best starting 11?
New York has surged to the top of the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, in large part due to the contributions of some new faces in the lineup. Le Toux, rookie Connor Lade and goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, also acquired in a recent trade, all made the most of their opportunities in the Red Bulls' grueling three-games-in-six-days spell.
Henry, surprisingly, declared in a recent interview that Lade and right back Brandon Barklage have been New York's best players this season, and I agree. While they certainly aren't the most highly touted players on the roster, Lade and Barklage serve as the epitome of role players that any good team needs to succeed. Coaches love to use the phrase, "A good team can't have 11 piano players on the field, you need to have some piano carriers." Lade and Barklage are the piano carriers that allow players like Henry to shine.
The most difficult decisions Backe will face in putting together his starting 11 is finding a balance to allow his big-money acquisitions to focus on doing what they do best. With all that said, here is the lineup I think gives the Red Bulls the best opportunity to make a run at their first MLS Cup championship:
-------------------------- Meara --------------------------
-- Barklage --- Holgersson --- Conde --- Pearce --
------------------------ McCarty -------------------------
------------------ Lindpere --- Lade -------------------
-------------------------- Cahill ---------------------------
------------------ Le Toux --- Henry -------------------
Many people might look at this lineup and say, "Wait a minute, where's Rafa Marquez?" My answer: on the bench.
Marquez has not done enough to convince me that he makes the Red Bulls a better team when he is on the field. He is a piano player that the Red Bulls cannot afford to carry. There's no question he has had an unbelievable career and possesses skills that are world class, but after 38 career MLS matches we still aren't sure whether he fits best as a center back or holding mid. His exquisite passing is sometimes overshadowed by his lack of pace. His brilliant movement sometimes canceled out by questionable leadership. That isn't to say he can't turn it around and find a way to make it work, but at this juncture he is not deserving of a starting position.
For guys like Cooper, Mehdi Ballouchy, Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller, they simply become victims of circumstance in their ouster from the starting lineup. However, these guys' ability to embrace their roles coming off the bench will be key for N.Y. moving forward as depth is integral to any championship run in MLS.
I also re-inserted Ryan Meara back in as starter in goal, though Gaudette has filled in admirably while Meara has been injured. The presence of Gaudette will help push Meara to be on top of his game, as well as allow Backe to know he has a veteran backup he can trust.
Though there are still questions about the Red Bulls' defense, the back four of Barklage, Markus Holgersson, Wilman Conde and Heath Pearce is solid and experienced. In the midfield, Dax McCarty has been the quarterback from his holding midfield position, doing much of the grunt work that never makes its way onto the stat sheet.
The combination of McCarty and Cahill in the middle of the park gives New York a pair of two-way midfielders who are comfortable interchanging in each other's roles. Cahill will obviously be a guy that the Red Bulls will count on to make late runs into the box and get on the end of crosses in front of goal. Out wide, Joel Lindpere has been solid, albeit inconsistent; but he is simply a good soccer player who can make a difference. Lade, meanwhile, has been a revelation with his work rate and energy, and brings enough intangibles to earn a starting spot.
Up top, Henry already seems to have developed a bit of a partnership with Le Toux, and the two Frenchmen will hope that chemistry leads to many goals for the striker tandem. Though Le Toux is an extremely streaky finisher, his work rate is among the best in the league and the reason he gets the nod as a starter over Cooper is his ability to stretch the field. At this stage in his career, Henry seems more comfortable checking back to the ball and finding holes to receive and turn. With Le Toux making runs and stretching the field, the opposition will be forced to drop and create space, which Henry is constantly looking for. Look for Cooper to still get his fair share of playing time and expand on his goal total, even with a lesser role.
Competition breeds excellence, and Backe will have to work to keep everyone on his roster happy, motivated and ready to contribute. Only time will tell whether the Red Bulls have the right combination of players to capture their first Cup, but you have to admire the commitment to go out and add an international star such as Cahill.
Not only is this potentially a huge win for New York, but also for MLS. The addition of another high-profile international star will raise the league's stature while also making this MLS season that much more intriguing.