Red Bulls still have some holes to fill

March 17, 2008
GalarcepBy Ives Galarcep, ESPNsoccernet
(Archive)

Editor's note: This is the sixth of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 finish: 12-11-7 (third in the East, sixth in MLS)

Key Additions: F Oscar Echeverry, D Eric Brunner, GK Zach Thornton

Key Losses: M Clint Mathis, M Dema Kovalenko, F Francis Doe, GK Ronald Waterreus

Icon SMIJuan Pablo Angel is arguably the best striker in MLS today.

Key Questions

1. When will the reinforcements arrive?

Considering the long list of new acquisitions in MLS this season, particularly in the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls have been conspicuous by their lack of activity. Colombian striker Oscar Echeverry is the lone impact signing of the offseason on a team that had several needs.

Chief among those needs are a playmaker, left winger and left back for Osorio's 3-5-2 formation. You could argue that Osorio will improve the team's talent by getting more out of certain players than his predecessor, Bruce Arena did. While that could help the club from a consistency standpoint, if the Red Bulls are going to contend for a title, the team still needs two or three impact signings.

Osorio insists it is a matter of when, and not if, those key additions will arrive. The club has cleared plenty of salary cap space to accommodate new players, but with the transfer window set to close in a month, the Red Bulls will need to act fast or be forced to wait until the summer, something the team may not be able to afford to do in an improved Eastern Conference.

2. What does Claudio Reyna have left?

There haven't been many players in MLS who've faced more scrutiny from his own team's fans than Claudio Reyna, who struggled with injuries and failed to make the type of impact expected of a million-dollar player.

While some of the criticism he faced was warranted, to say he was a waste of a player is flat wrong. Reyna stepped up in several matches late in the year and something that wasn't publicized was his leadership that helped keep together a locker room that was set for a meltdown late in the season.

What Reyna can still do is compose the midfield, cut off other team's passing lanes and make sharp passes to put his teammates in positions to make plays. Last year, Reyna was a victim of a system that left him defending far too often. That shouldn't be a problem this year as Osorio wants Reyna's role to be more of a catalyst, either in an advanced role or in a deeper position, depending on when the Red Bulls sign a natural attacking midfielder.

Does Reyna actually have something left in the tank at 34? So far in preseason Reyna has looked re-energized, something that Red Bulls fans will be hoping carries over to the regular season.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"It's a big move. They're bragging about some of the money they've got, because they've moved some players around. They've still got one of the classiest players in the league -- Juan Pablo Angel has been a fantastic find. He looks like Zorro. I like this team. I hate where they play. Get that stadium built, please. I'm going to defend Claudio Reyna a little bit. In the post-Bruce Arena era -- it's sad to see a player like Claudio come back to this league and get run down by a bad field. It's the worst field in the country. I anticipate this team will improve, but Osorio has to realize one thing. He cannot overwork this group. He can't. He has a tendency to do that, and hopefully he doesn't this time."

3. Are enough pieces in place for a good defense?

So how did the Red Bulls go from the stingiest defense in the league early in the year to a dysfunctional back line by season's end? There were a variety of reasons, from terrible trades to injuries and the clear loss of confidence of some defenders.

Enter Osorio, whose reputation for transforming teams into defensively stingy units precedes him. In Chicago, he implemented a disciplined system that frustrated opponents and limited their chances. Osorio has already stated that he's impressed with the defensive talent on the roster, enough to be left wondering how the group performed so poorly last season. Jeff Parke and Carlos Mendes were a quality center back tandem the first two months of 2007 before watching the team's starting fullbacks either be traded or injured. That, coupled with the loss of goalkeeper Ronald Waterreus, unsettled the two and they eventually wore down as they tried to cover for their teammates mistakes.

Osorio has seen the quality in both and has them in his starting three-man defense, with Parke as the central defender and Mendes as the right back. The change in system seems to suit them well, but the left back position will be key to how well the defense really does. Kevin Goldthwaite just wasn't good enough after arriving last season in a trade for Todd Dunivant. The move was a disaster for the Red Bulls even before Goldthwaite went down with a knee injury. He has shown improvement in training camp, but not enough to keep the club from continuing to find another player at the position.

X-Factor: Oscar Echeverry

Few could have imagined that a team with Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore would be looking for an impact forward. However, Altidore's likely participation in the Olympics and with the U.S. national team (along with the outside chance that he moves on a transfer this summer) made forward a priority for new coach Juan Carlos Osorio.

Enter Echeverry, a fast and strong striker whose shifty moves and clever passing make him an ideal partner for Angel, and a potential withdrawn forward in a three-forward attack. He has already shown a good understanding with Angel and should flourish as teams pay extra attention to Angel and Altidore.

Breakout player to watch: Jeff Parke

It might sound strange for a four-year veteran of the league to be a breakout candidate, but Parke stands poised to go from quality MLS starter to one of the league's best central defenders.

Strong, fast and uncompromising, Parke has long been underrated, but Osorio has already acknowledged that the 26-year-old defender is better than people realize. Playing as the center back in a three-man defense will allow Parke to show the tools that could make him an All-Star. Don't be surprised to see Parke emerge much the way Eddie Robinson emerged as Houston's best defender after seven years in the league.

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England at Chicago
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose at Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Outlook

The Red Bulls woefully underachieved in 2007, wasting a strong start to the season with a stuttering finish. There are holes in the roster, but there are pieces in place to quickly turn the Red Bulls into a title contender, assuming the club can sign the right players and make use of the salary cap space it has cleared this offseason.

That's where Osorio was expected to be able to attract some quality signings. He has delivered one so far in Echeverry, but the club still has several needs with less than a month to go before the start of the season. The Red Bulls still need a left winger, a left back and an attacking midfielder. Without filling those needs, the Red Bulls are going to struggle in an Eastern Conference where other teams have loaded up with new players.

Osorio believes the Red Bulls can compete even before the reinforcements arrive. He is confident he can build a stingy defense like he did in Chicago, and the Red Bulls believe Reyna can be a useful playmaker who provides competent service for Angel and Osorio. That may be wishful thinking. If the Red Bulls can competently fill their needs on the transfer market they could push D.C. United for the East title. Now, if the Red Bulls struggle to find the players they need, the current roster will struggle to crack the top four in the East and will be in danger of missing the playoffs.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.