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Mar 22, 2007

Reyna expected to be the offensive focal point

Editor's note: This is the third of 13 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2007 season.

2006 record and finish: 9-11-12 (fourth in Eastern Conference)

Key additions: M Claudio Reyna, GK Ronald Waterreus, M Dave Van Den Bergh, M Dane Richards

Key losses: M Amado Guevara, M/F Youri Djorkaeff, GK Tony Meola, M Chris Henderson, F Edson Buddle, M Danny O'Rourke

Key questions facing the Red Bulls

1. Who will score the goals?

If this question sounds familiar, it is because it was the very same first question in the team's preview last season. Rather than address it, the club went through the offseason without adding a single, established goal scorer.

The onus will fall on teenage forward Josmer Altidore, who showed tons of potential late last season, delivering four goals once he became a starter. Journeyman forward John Wolyniec also will be called on to try to match his 10-goal tally with the MetroStars. Dane Richards and Mike Magee also should see time at forward, but they will likely see more action in midfield.

What remains to be seen is what formation coach Bruce Arena will use. The team has been favoring a 4-5-1 formation with a target forward taking advantage of the club's strong wing play. Altidore and Wolyniec are both well-suited for that system, which would help cover up the club's lack of forward depth.

If Altidore and Wolyniec don't get the job done, Arena will have little choice but to consider signing a forward during the summer transfer window. The Red Bulls have the salary-cap space and designated-player slot to bring in a quality option.

2. How big an impact will Claudio Reyna have?

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"I think the over/under on Claudio Reyna is probably eight, in terms of how many games he plays on that turf. Claudio has had an amazing career, and this is sort of a homecoming. People don't realize that Claudio Reyna, as great as his career has been, has never set foot on American soil to play professionally. Altidore is a player I'm excited to watch this year. I think at the end of last season, we all got to see what the future of American soccer might be. Marvell Wynne has the absolute best recovery speed of any player in the league, meaning if he get beats, and he does get beat often, they still can't run past him, because his first four steps will put him right back in line with the play."

Eric Wynalda is an ESPN soccer analyst.

Red Bulls players can't stop talking about Reyna's skill on the ball and his ability to make teammates better. He will be asked to do much more offensively than his past few clubs asked, particularly with the departure of Guevara and Djorkaeff.

Arena is planning to employ a three-man central midfield, with Dema Kovalenko and Seth Stammler providing the defensive bite and attacking support for Reyna, who will play a more advanced role than some are accustomed to seeing him play, but one he is certainly capable of handling.

The obvious concern with Reyna is his health and ability to stay on the field. National team retirement and the Red Bulls' lack of nonleague matches should help Reyna, who was accustomed to a far more congested playing schedule in England. You should still expect to see Arena rest Reyna at every opportunity, though.

Ultimately, if Reyna can stay on the field, he will quickly establish himself as one of the league's best players.

3. Is the defense good enough?

The same four players who made up the Red Bulls' back line in the final two months of last season are back, and the jury is still out on whether they are capable of delivering another playoff spot.

The major questions lie in central defense, where Carlos Mendes and Jeff Parke are serviceable but hardly dominant. They have been partnered for two seasons and have the advantage of familiarity. Parke is the faster, more athletic of the two, while Mendes is better at putting himself in good position and is strong enough to deal with more physical forwards.

One of the more exciting aspects of the Red Bulls is the fullback position, where Todd Dunivant and Marvell Wynne make up one of the league's best tandems. Wynne was very raw last season but showed solid improvement and boundless potential. He has shown up this preseason with an improved understanding of positioning as well as a better touch and continues to be on track for a future with the U.S. national team.

Dunivant's attacking prowess at the left back spot is what has made him one of the league's best at the position, but you can expect Arena to work on Dunivant's defensive shortcomings, which aren't talked about enough.

The back line should be helped tremendously by the arrival of Dutch goalkeeper Ronald Waterreus, whose foot skills on the ball will give Red Bulls' defenders a safety valve that didn't exist last season.

Biggest X-factor: Dave Van Den Bergh

The Dutch winger didn't make much of an impact during his short stint with the Kansas City Wizards, but that simply may have been a product of adapting to a new league and a new country. It is easier to believe that theory after watching him dominate in the preseason.

Van Den Bergh is deceptively quick, very skillful and an accurate crosser of the ball; plus, he has an underrated shot. His impressive showing this preseason is one of the main reasons Arena is confident in employing a 4-5-1 formation with Van Den Bergh and Markus Schopp as advanced wingers.

The presence of Van Den Bergh should give the Red Bulls good balance in midfield and help stretch out defenses in order to give Reyna more room to organize the attack. Based on what Van Den Bergh has shown this preseason, don't be surprised to see him post some big numbers.

Breakout player to watch: Dane Richards

A Jamaican-born, second-round draft pick with the speed and physical attributes to score goals and wreak havoc in MLS ... sound familiar? Well, four years ago that player was Damani Ralph, the goal-scoring dynamo who starred for Chicago before bolting to Europe. He was the 18th player chosen in the 2003 MLS draft and proceeded to make the teams that didn't draft him look foolish.

Richards, the 19th player chosen in January's MLS draft, could wind up being a similar impact player. He has dazzled this preseason with his blazing speed and finishing ability and is making a real strong case for a starting role in a Red Bulls attack that is loaded in midfield.

Richards is more naturally a right winger, but his versatility and the club's lack of options at forward could see him play significant minutes up front, which could only serve to help him add to the Ralph comparisons.

Outlook: Arena added some players and got rid of some of the roster's dead weight, but how much better is this year's Red Bulls team? You can expect an improvement, particularly if the midfield plays as well as it is capable of, but the lack of established forward options keeps the Red Bulls from being a serious candidate to challenge D.C. United.

With that said, the club has made enough progress to stay ahead of Kansas City and Columbus. Whether the Red Bulls surpass New England and Chicago in the East will depend on whether Altidore blossoms and whether the club signs a quality forward this summer. It also will depend heavily on whether Reyna can stay healthy.

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.