Playoffs in Profile: New era beckons for Red Bulls

Superstar enters playoffs with one last chance to win in New York

As the MLS Cup playoffs get set to begin, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.

New media editor David Agrell takes a look at Juan Pablo Ángel in our first installment, analyzing his past with the Red Bulls, what he means to the club now and why his impending depature signals a change for the franchise in the years to come. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week.

NEW YORK — A subtle irony greeted fans as they approached Red Bull Arena for New York's final game of the 2010 regular season.

Hanging on the facade of a disused warehouse adjoining the stadium parking lot is a giant billboard that features an action shot of Juan Pablo Ángel. Above the 100-foot-tall striker are the words,"Witness a new era."

The club hung the banner at the beginning of the 2010 season to remind fans that this was not the old Giants Stadium-dwelling MetroStars of old. This was, well, a new era for the franchise. And what better way to announce its rebirth than with a Godzilla-like portrait of the team's biggest star.

However, the Ángel era is essentially over. Last week, in a 2-0 defeat of longtime foes New England, Ángel played his final regular-season game as a Red Bull. Sure, the Colombian striker will most certainly suit up in New York colors for the postseason. But as for next year, Ángel will not return as a Red Bulls player.

In his own words, that's "a fact."

"I have a lot of emotions right now," Ángel said after the regular-season finale. "People know I will always be grateful for this team. But I hopefully still have four games left, and at the end I will thank everybody."

The end will likely come when Ángel's contract expires at the conclusion of this campaign, at which time he'll become a free agent. Until then, there are the playoffs, but it's been clear for some months that Angel's New York days are numbered.

Though New York's management has been mum on its offseason plans for its all-time leading scorer, ESPN's Allen Hopkins told MLSsoccer.com two weeks ago that at least four teams courted Ángel back in July after New York had, apparently, told the striker they wouldn't renew his contract.

"I've always said, you know, that Red Bull fans, the organization, the league will always have an important place in my heart — and with my family, also, because we were welcome from the very first day," Ángel said. "And I still have an appreciation for everyone around. I only have good words."

Witness a new era?

It's no surprise that the franchise lost interest in the 35-year-old around the time rumors that Thierry Henry would join the club as a second Designated Player were confirmed in July. The fact is, Henry and Ángel are similar types of player, in a way, and for the franchise to have both forwards would be surplus to its needs.

As MLSsoccer.com columnist Matt Doyle pointed not long after Henry’s arrival, both players like to drift out to the left when they attack. In fact, Ángel has scored 80 percent of his goals from that side. Henry's résumé features plenty of stunning efforts from the left, too. 

On this night, though, which was be his regular-season swan song, the stage belonged to Ángel. He donned the captain's armband, which he has done throughout the season — playing in all 30 games — as Henry watched from the stands, shelved with a hamstring injury.

In a way, the game encapsulated Ángel's brief Red Bull playing career. He trots about up top, eking out space and making clever little touches. He seemed to play the captain's role well, albeit without much noise. At one point Ángel pulled teammate Mehdi Ballouchy aside to either scold him or encourage him after a string of howlers from the young Moroccan.

Ángel has done plenty throughout his career to earn the captain's armband, as well as the respect of his teammates. After breaking out with his hometown club Atlético Nacional of Colombia, he signed for Argentine giants River Plate in 1998. In Buenos Aires, he scored in every other game, which earned him a move to the EPL's Aston Villa. Only Dwight Yorke has scored more goals in Villa colors since WWII.

The Colombian's international career was not so memorable, though. Over a decade, Ángel managed just 33 appearances in which he tallied nine goals. Still, current Colombia coach Hernán Darío Gómez admitted he may call Ángel "in the future" as los Cafeteros enter a new World Cup qualifying cycle.

In New York, meanwhile, the franchise is changing shape quickly as head coach Hans Backe and technical director Erik Solér rebuild the club in their image. Little remains of the roster that ushered in the Ángel era in 2007. Only Dane Richards, Seth Stammler and Carlos Mendes were on the team when Ángel joined.

"I have said it all along — this is a completely different team," Ángel said. "It's a completely different set-up. For a start, with we have this wonderful stadium, better players — it's day and night."

But as much as things have changed in three years, Ángel's influence as team captain is still the same.

"He's one of the best players to play for this club and one of the most professional," Mendes told MLSsoccer.com. "He's a leader on and off the field, and he's a good person. … I really don't know what's going to happen next year, but either way, I wish him the best and I'd love to see him here."

Early in the game, Ángel earned his fourth assist of the season — a season-high as a Red Bulls player. Having received the ball near the center circle, he turned and served out wide to Dane Richards, who was flashing down the right. Richards then fired a highlight-reel worthy shot into the top corner ensuring Ángel's simple assist will be seen for years to come. Not that Ángel's Red Bulls career needed any more highlights.

He joined the club at the beginning of the 2007 season, a year after the soft drink manufacturer had acquired and rebranded the franchise. As the club's first international Designated Player, Ángel was the public face of a new era for the club. He has scored 58 regular-season goals for the Red Bulls, surpassing Clint Mathis for the franchise record. He also tallied twice during the 2008 playoffs en route to the MLS Cup final, which the Red Bulls lost, 3-1, to Columbus.

The 2008 season was, to date, the best chance New York had at a championship. The perennial underperformers perhaps shined brightest during that surprising postseason run, and Ángel will be remembered as the catalyst.

The following season, though, was a catastrophe. New York finished dead last while shattering the league record for the longest road winless streak. Yet Ángel still managed double-figure scoring and, to the fans, that meant a lot. As they suffered long nights in a near-empty Giants Stadium, Ángel, arguably the league's most successful Designated Player so far, remained something worth making an effort to see.

This year, though, Ángel's production faded down the stretch. Though he finished the regular season with a team-high tally of 13 goals, he failed to find the net in open play in his last 13 games. In fact, the last time he did score from the run of play was with a brace, during a 2-2 tie in Houston on July 31.

That match also marked Henry's Red Bulls debut. The Frenchman assisted Ángel on both goals.

Change On The Horizon

It's hard to fault New York's infatuation with their new star. Henry is, after all, a World Cup winner with scores of personal and team honors. The franchise's love affair with its new DP is visible all over Red Bull Arena. Its vendors, at least the ones sprinkled throughout the stadium's concourses, no longer carry Ángel replica jerseys. Now the prized jerseys are than of Henry and Rafa Márquez.

"Look, it's like getting a new pair of sneakers," said MLS Insider and avid Red Bulls fans Shawn Francis. "There's nothing wrong with your old sneakers — you were still wearing them every day and they still looked good. But then you go out and get these new shoes, and all of a sudden your old sneakers look ... old. You don't feel like wearing them anymore."

Still, there are plenty of folks wearing "old sneakers" throughout Red Bull Arena. Within the stadium's South Ward — the sections in which the club's most vocal supporters reside — Ángel's No. 9 replica shirt far outnumbers Thierry Henry's No. 14. At least three fans wave Colombia flags, and twice during the regular-season finale, the section performs an Ángel chant.

"He really is the face of our franchise, I suppose," one fan told MLSsoccer.com. "I'm sure he'll stay. I can't imagine they'll get rid of him. Not yet. He's our leading scorer."

When told it's a likely done deal, that doesn't exaclty sit well with the fan.

"That's just [expletive]," he replies. "Pure [expletive]."

Still, other fans are more realistic. They've seen stars come and go — though no one likes to see a club hero walk, let alone don the colors of a rival team. But the Red Bulls are rolling into a new era, and these fans will embrace Backe's winning ways, with or without Ángel.

"If the Red Bulls win the MLS Championship this year, then Ángel 's time and effort at RBNY would have been paid off — and even if they don't, for a player of his quality, he is in the declining part of his career," wrote Facebook user Waskar A. Veloz, who commented on a recent story on MLSsoccer.com. "[He] will be greatly missed, but I am more than certain that we will bring in somebody just as good, if not better."

Until then, though, Ángel has one last chance to reach MLS glory when the Red Bulls open their Eastern Conference semifinal series at San Jose on Saturday night.

"We need to finish this up well," Ángel said. "We don't want to disappoint ourselves because we have worked so hard. … We've got to be at our best right from the beginning. We don't want to miss out on this great opportunity."