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Red Bulls treading water under Osorio

He came to New York with high hopes and expectations. When coach Juan Carlos Osorio was lured away from the Chicago Fire in late 2007, he brought with him a pedigree of experience that ranged from MLS to the English Premiership to the Colombian league.

A pragmatic and thoughtful coach, the bilingual Osorio was expected to pick up the pieces for the Red Bulls after a so-so stretch under former national team coach Bruce Arena. So far, it has been more of the same under Osorio. The Red Bulls are mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference and Tuesday's 2-0 U.S. Open Cup loss to Crystal Palace Baltimore of the United Soccer League's Second Division was an embarrassment.

On paper, it made sense for the Red Bulls to field a reserve team for the Open Cup game. After all, the team was coming off a cross-country round trip to L.A. (to face Chivas) the weekend before. Having said that, the makeshift team Osorio sent out clearly went through the motions and disappointed members of the Empire Supporters club that had made the trek to Maryland. One also has to question whether Osorio made the right decision to overlook the Open Cup.

After all, it ignores the fact that the emptiness of this franchise's trophy case is only matched by the bareness of Giants Stadium on game night. With only an Eastern Conference trophy and a La Manga preseason title to boast of, this is a team and a fan base that needs something to rally behind. Advancing further in the Open Cup might just be that spark.

Last year's third-place finish had been a realistic standing for a team that was still a work in progress. In his first full year on the job, Arena had begun to piece together a team that was performing reasonably well. Finishing 12-11-7 and with 45 points, there was reason for hope in New York. Arena's premature firing may have been enacted by other factors and clashing visions, but it left Osorio with a competitive team.

Through 15 games last season, the Red Bulls tallied 24 points on seven wins, five losses and three ties. Fans were disappointed in the bland play of million-dollar midfielder Claudio Reyna but hopes were buoyed by the emergence of Jozy Altidore as a star forward in the league. His partnership with Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel was proving lethal and rookie Dane Richards was a catalyst in a productive midfield. It wasn't an ideal finish to a season with such promise because the Red Bulls lost in the first round of the playoffs, but it was something positive, and more importantly, it was continuity.

The Red Bulls, who completed Game 15 of the season Friday with a humiliating 4-0 loss to Colorado, seem to have taken a step back. With five wins, five losses and five draws, the Red Bulls have 20 points, four behind last year's pace. The offense is averaging a mere goal a game and the defense has conceded seven more goals (22) than at the same juncture last year.

It can be argued that Osorio has done a reasonably good job with a lot less than Arena had at this point last year. Angel has missed much of the past month with an injury and both Reyna and Richards have had health issues. The recent sale of Altidore to Spanish club Villareal has also left the club with virtually no effective forward options.

However, Osorio's cause has not been helped by his own gambles; some of his moves have been bewildering. Oscar Echeverry, one of the club's few signings in the offseason, has been a travesty in the league thus far -- ineffective and living up to his billing as a mediocre forward in the Colombian league. The team's top draft choice, Eric Brunner, never played a competitive minute with the team due to a contract dispute and signed with Miami FC of the USL First Division. It gets worse. After his row with the club, Brunner was called up to the U-23 national team to participate in the Toulon Cup and the defender even scored a goal in international play. Adding salt to the wound, Brunner was essentially released to sign Toronto castoff Andrew Boyens, who has been as mobile as a traffic cone in the back line.

Other moves are puzzling too. Dema Kovalenko, a versatile player whom Osorio sent packing to Real Salt Lake in the winter, was a midfielder who could cover several positions on an injury-plagued team. There is also Francis Doe, a midseason signing last year who also was released by Osorio after a promising 2007 campaign. The attacking player has made four appearances for D.C. United, performing adequately for the rival club.

In short, the Red Bulls could and should be much better than they are now.

Where does that leave this team? They are mired in no-man's land. When he left the club, Arena had pieced together a mix of veterans and youth players that was closing in on being a very good club. Even with an albatross of a contract like Reyna's on the roster, there were enough good pieces and flexibility that the Red Bulls could make a push into the playoffs. The team needed some defensive help and some upgrades in the midfield. What it got is status quo at best.

The good news is that Osorio still has more salary cap and allocation money to play with. With the signings of two midfielders -- Venezuelan international Jorge Rojas and Argentinean Juan Pietravallo -- Osorio is gambling that this unit will carry the team. Needing desperately to fill the forward slot next to Angel, he would also be wise to look for other midfield options to either replace or complement team captain Reyna, should he ever return to the field.

Perhaps, the "Fire Osorio" petitions are a tad premature. Given similar starts by the club over the past handful of years, this team might be ready to experience a torrid summer like the franchise's most successful season in 2000, when Osorio was an assistant with New York.

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.

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