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Although the 2008 New York Red Bulls finished their season playing in the MLS Cup final, head coach Juan Carlos Osorio knew his team just wasn't good enough to compete on multiple fronts and pose a serious threat as one of the league's best teams over the course of the season. He knew changes needed to be made and he would have one full winter to pull off the sorely-needed makeover.
What Osorio and the Red Bulls have managed to do in the four months since the MLS Cup final is nothing short of impressive. He has constructed a deep, athletic and talented squad that might just be ready to play like a team worthy of an MLS Cup final appearance.
There are still plenty of question marks to be sure, such as whether Jorge Rojas is ready to rebound after a sub-par first MLS season, and whether the reconstructed back-line will be more consistent and less mistake-prone than last year's group, but a look at the Red Bulls roster reveals a group that should give Osorio a plethora of lineup and formation options that will make the Red Bulls one of the toughest teams in the league to play against.
For those of you who missed it, here is my ESPN.com preview of the Red Bulls. Here are some more observations about the 2009 Red Bulls:
The back-line should be better
The loss of Jeff Parke to the expansion draft figured to cost the Red Bulls dearly, but the club has replaced him with veteran and former New York fan favorite Mike Petke, who has the experience, poise and intelligence to provide some sorely-needed leadership in the back.
The real area of improvement will be at fullback, where Carlos Johnson and Alfredo Pacheco should be the starters once both their signings are completed. Johnson is 6-foot-1, fast and a good crosser. He should be able to provide the attacking element that the position has lacked for years. Pacheco is not as big as Johnson, but he may be even better getting forward and is an aggressive defender who will offer a more dynamic option at left back than Kevin Goldthwaite was.
Speaking of Goldthwaite, he is the defender Osorio is hoping emerges as an impact centerback. Goldthwaite has the physical tools to play well in the middle of the defense, but he is still prone to mistakes and is too easily beaten on set pieces. If he can't find consistency, Osorio won't hesitate to start Andrew Boyens and Carlos Mendes. Neither is as gifted as Goldthwaite, but both are steadier and less mistake prone.
The midfield is one of the deepest in MLS
The Red Bulls weren't exactly looking for a central midfielder when former Spanish national teamer Albert Celades fell into their lap, but Osorio wasn't about to complain. Now that the former Barcelona and Real Madrid man is signed, he is expected to provide a technically gifted presence in the middle of the field who should make his teammates better.
As important as Celades arrival is, just as important is the play of Jorge Rojas, who has looked very sharp in pre-season and could be poised to show off the attacking qualities that he flashed only briefly last season.
Khano Smith is another player who will need to step up his game if the Red Bulls are going to want to be more than just a playoff contender. The former New England winger has been inconsistent throughout his career, but he does have the talent to make an impact, something Osorio is banking on.
Capitalizing on speed
The Red Bulls boast the fastest team in MLS, but don't expect a track team to take the field every week. The Red Bulls will have the luxury of picking certain opponents to try and overwhelm with the likes of Dominic Oduro, Mac Kandji and Matt Mbuta to go along with projected starters Dane Richards and Khano Smith.
Kandji is one player who could be due for a breakout season after showing some flashes late in 2008. His acceleration and ability to take defenders on make him a threat both as a starter or as a super sub off the bench. The same applies to Oduro, whose blazing speed could make him an ideal strike partner for Juan Pablo Angel.
The Depth Chart
Here is a two-deep depth chart of the 2009 Red Bulls, which helps illustrate just how much deeper this year's squad is than the 2008 version:
Are the Red Bulls good enough to win an MLS Cup? The talent is certainly there to challenge for MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup, as well as to contend in the CONCACAF Champions League, but reconstructed teams usually need time to come together. That is why defending champion Columbus and Chicago are still the class of MLS heading into the season, but the Red Bulls have positioned themselves to lead the list of contenders to knock off that top two.
What do you think of the Red Bulls chances in 2009? Think they have a team that can win some trophies? Could this be the most exciting New York team since the 2000 MetroStars? Still not sold on the defense holding up or Rojas improving? Will this team thrive or struggle?
Share your thoughts below.