It seems that the 30-game MLS regular season is really just a precursor for the MLS playoffs, the games that really matter. For Red Bulls' head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, the series against Houston may mean more than simply starting off strong and getting a win. Osorio might be coaching for his job.
After all, this is an organization that set the precedent last year when Bruce Arena, in his first full season with the club, was fired after a first-round playoff exit. When he took the head coaching position in the summer of 2006, Arena had a clear mandate from management to bring home a championship. A 16-16-10 mark and two first-round exits during his brief time with the club did not accomplish this lofty goal. Despite the stability and clear vision Arena was building into the tumultuous franchise, New York wanted to win, and win now. You mess with the bull, you get the horns, and Arena got knocked out of the ring.
How Red Bull could fire Arena -- whose three MLS Cup wins with D.C. United and eight years as coach of the national team make him the most savvy American coach of his generation -- is beyond my pay grade to comprehend. He inherited a team that was in disarray and lacked identity and built a strong core with good complementary players. When Osorio was hired in November of last year, he brought with him a wealth of international coaching pedigree in England and Colombia. His successful tenure with the Chicago Fire in 2007, leading them to within a game of the MLS Cup, had caught the attention of New York. Osorio was expected to take New York to a whole new level and bring the club its first title.
What Red Bull has gotten is more of the same.
As such, Osorio should be held equally as accountable as Arena was.
In the past two seasons, Red Bull has finished with 43 points, mired in the middle of the Eastern Conference. Red Bull hired Osorio to shore up this team's defense and to build on the foundation Arena laid. New York has scored fewer goals and conceded more goals this season than it did under Arena last year, playing deplorably at times. Several times this season, the club has been badly outplayed, losing by embarrassing and lopsided tallies such as the 5-2 loss to Chicago in the regular-season finale.
However, the method by which Osorio got to this point is the most troubling. After his pursuits of Paraguayan midfielder Lider Marmol proved to be in vain -- the player's rights were held by Chicago and the Fire demanded a prince's ransom for a player who saw the field sparingly -- Osorio eventually settled on his targets. All four players were signings in July, just as the transfer window opened, and New York was already mired in mediocrity. These highly touted players, all from South America, proved to be anything but splendid. Whoever said "better late then never" apparently did not watch a Red Bulls game this season.
Between the four additions -- Jorge Rojas, Juan Pietravallo, Gabriel Cichero and Diego Jimenez -- the signings have zero goals on the season and seven assists in a combined 2,865 minutes of play. That number is roughly equivalent to 32 matches, or two more games than an MLS season. To make matters worse, the expensive hit on the salary cap is the polar opposite of their net effect on the field.
While Jimenez -- whose defensive gaffes have cost the team points in two games -- is still young and makes a paltry $12,900 for the season, none of the other players can be seen as projects. With 10 caps for Venezuela and experience with some storied South American clubs, Cichero's defensive performance must be called into question, especially at $156,000 against the cap.
Pietravallo, who has never stayed at a club longer than two years, makes $192,000. Dema Kovalenko, whom Osorio exiled to Salt Lake early in his tenure with New York, makes slightly more than Pietravallo. The former Red Bulls midfielder has been a pivotal part of Real Salt Lake earning its first playoff appearance in franchise history. His midfield bite was severely lacking from the New York lineup through much of the first half of the season.
Rojas, who was signed using an allocation to offset his salary, earns more than the $84,000 hit he takes on the cap. A veteran of the Colombian and Venezuelan leagues, Rojas has been a subdued performer for the team, and is not worth his six-figure salary.
All this means that Osorio should be under scrutiny for the next two games. If Red Bull produces another first-round flop, should Juan Carlos Osorio be given a free pass? Arena was fired in large part for his miscalculation on signing Claudio Reyna to a designated player contract; as such, Osorio should be held equally responsible for the mess he has created in the Swamp.
The calls to give Osorio a pass for one more year are somewhat valid. After all, this is a club that has had five head coaches since 2005 and is in need of something other than constant turnover. Maybe Osorio should have one more year to prove himself. Maybe.
But that would be ignoring the fact that Red Bull had a directive last year for Arena to bring a championship to Giants Stadium and he got fired for failing to achieve that end. Osorio should be doing more with the talented club he inherited than simply backing into the playoffs. What Arena left in the cupboard -- players like Juan Pablo Angel, Dave van den Bergh, Dane Richards, Seth Stammler, Jeff Parke and Jon Conway -- all performed well in 2008. It was the additions that Osorio "infused" into Red Bull who provided no wings for the club. If and when New York gets bounced by Houston in the playoffs, Osorio's foolish signings, more than anything else, should cost him his job.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.