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Mar 10, 2009

Red Bulls revamp roster, but defense still a question mark

Editor's note: This is the ninth of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. Kansas City will be previewed Thursday.

2008 record and finish: 10-11-9 (Fifth in East, MLS Cup finalist)

Key additions: F Dominic Oduro, D Mike Petke, D Alfredo Pacheco, M Khano Smith, M Jeremy Hall, M Albert Celades

Key losses: M Dave van den Bergh, D Jeff Parke, D Diego Jimenez, D Chris Leitch, D Gabriel Cichero

Three questions facing this team:

1. Will the defense be good enough?

Juan Carlos Osorio has long had a reputation as a defensive-minded coach, but last season the Red Bulls gave up 48 goals, third-most in MLS. Even though he eventually found a useful back line that helped get the Red Bulls to the final, Osorio still wanted to rebuild.

The result is a very different back-line than before. Veteran Mike Petke steps in to provide some stability and leadership in the back, while left back Alfredo Pacheco gives the Red Bulls an attacking threat on the left flank.

The question is who will fill the other two slots? Kevin Goldthwaite was expected to be the leading candidate to play alongside Petke in a 4-4-2, but his penchant for making mistakes as a center back continues after enjoying a strong 2008 as a stay-at-home left back. If Goldthwaite can't cut out the mistakes, Osorio will need to turn to either Carlos Mendes or Andrew Boyens, two players who played well in the playoffs.

MLS Primetime
March 19
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Right back is the biggest question mark, with Costa Rican Carlos Johnson expected to be signed to take up that slot. The Red Bulls traded away Chris Leitch, who was a solid defender in 2008, but who was also limited in what he could contribute in the attack. If Johnson can't be that overlapping right back Osorio is looking for, you just might see rookie Jeremy Hall settle in as a starter.

2. How will the Red Bulls use all that speed?

The 2008 Red Bulls boasted some good speed with the trio of Dane Richards, Macoumba Kandji and Matt Mbuta, but when the club spent the offseason acquiring Dominic Oduro, Khano Smith and Jeremy Hall, suddenly the Red Bulls started looking like a track team.

That wasn't an accident. Osorio felt the 2008 Red Bulls were too predictable and not athletic enough to put constant pressure on opponents, and now how has what he feels are the weapons to make life miserable for opposing defenses.

In Oduro, the Red Bulls have the speedy strike partner Osorio has wanted to use alongside Juan Pablo Angel since he first arrived. Not known as a great finisher, Oduro has spent the preseason working closely with Angel and Osorio and could be poised for a breakout season.

Kandji is another speedster who could have a major impact. After showing flashes upon his late-season arrival from the USL in 2008, Kandji has shown up this preseason like a new player. His technical skills, impressive acceleration and finishing ability should help him see more minutes, and potentially could land him the starting forward role alongside Angel.

Khano Smith isn't known as a full-blown speedster, but considering he is replacing the gifted though glacially slow Dave van den Bergh, Red Bulls fans will notice a significant upgrade in the speed department on the left. The expected arrival of an attack-minded left back like Pacheco means Smith will be doing a lot of running, both to cover for Pacheco's attacking forays, and for his own surges forward. Smith won't be called on to provide a steady supply of crosses like van den Bergh did, but Osorio is banking on Smith flourishing in the attack by going at defenders.

3. Is Jorge Rojas ready to be an impact playmaker?

When Rojas made his debut with the Red Bulls last season, he showed some beautiful skill and had fans thinking he could be the playmaker the club has lacked since the departure of Amado Guevara. Unfortunately for the Red Bulls, Rojas spent much of 2008 struggling to adapt to MLS.

With a full preseason under his belt, and a better understanding of his teammates and how MLS works, Rojas has enjoyed a stellar training camp and is looking like the playmaker Osorio thought he was getting when he signed the Venezuelan national team captain.

Rojas has great vision and a deft passing touch, but he struggled with his timing and with the physical style of MLS last season. Rojas has responded by showing up to camp in much better shape, and the result has been arguably the best preseason of any player on the team. Considering all the speedy weapons at his disposal, Rojas could very well be a 10-15 assist player this year.

Biggest X factor: Dominic Oduro

Having a reputation of "all speed, no finish" isn't exactly a compliment, but that has been Oduro's label since arriving in MLS three seasons ago. Osorio saw more than that when he first started scouting him a year ago. He believes Oduro can develop into a serious threat who, with some work on his touch around the goal, could be a double-digit goal scorer. Oduro scored five goals in 2008 in what amounted to 11 games' worth of minutes.

Alfredo Pacheco is another player who will be key to the Red Bulls' success. Considered one of El Salvador's best players, Pacheco is a tenacious defender with the ability to get involved in the attack. Osorio's emphasis on making his squad more dynamic in 2009 hinges on his fullbacks being attacking threats, and Pacheco is supposed to provide that.

Albert Celades might just be the best of the Red Bulls offseason additions. The former Real Madrid and Barcelona player is a skilled a physical central midfielder who should give the Red Bulls a dynamic two-way threat in the middle of the field. Celades is 33, but still has the skill and motor to be penciled him into the starting lineup, where he should only help Rojas find his best form.

Breakout player to watch: Jeremy Hall

John Harkes' Take:
"To me the biggest surprise was New York getting to the final because of their horrible displays at times. Very inconsistent from one week to the next, and when they lost, they lost four- and five-nil at times. Which shows reckless abandon on defensive situations. Their organization changed from one week to the next in terms of their set pieces, and oftentimes their formations. [Osorio] actually changed their formation three times during one particular game, so they've really got to sort some things out. The goalkeeping situation, they've got to sort out what's going to happen there. Jon Conway comes back, but he's still going to be missing the beginning part of the season anyway from his suspension. Danny Cepero could do a good job, he's a good young goalkeeper, but it's gonna take a while for him to gain more experience. There's question marks up in the air like who's coming in, who's gonna make a difference, who's gonna be a leader and stand up for that team?"

Heading into the 2009 MLS draft, there were few players more highly regarded than Hall, who was coming off a 14-goal season for defending NCAA champion Maryland. Most figured Hall could step in and potentially start at left midfielder, but Osorio saw different roles for Hall. He saw a player who was actually naturally right-footed and who had the characteristics to play other positions well.

Right back and central midfield, to be exact. Hall's athleticism, skill with both feet and nose for the goal make him a viable candidate at both spots (with right back being the position he is closer to being ready for). It will take some time for Hall to learn the intricacies of those positions, but at some point this season Hall is a safe bet to get on the field and make an instant impact.

Outlook: Some teams might have looked at a run like the Red Bulls made in last year's playoffs and figured the team was good enough to keep together. Osorio knew better. He knew his team played well over its head, and the 10-11-9 record of the regular season was a better indicator of the talent level on the squad.

As a result, the Red Bulls went out and revamped the squad, adding depth and talent everywhere except in central defense. One thing we know about the MLS salary structure is that you have limits to how much you can do to a roster, and the Red Bulls will head into 2009 with central defense remaining a cause for concern. Mike Petke is a good veteran presence, but the jury is still out on whether there is a reliable center back in the remaining trio of Goldthwaite, Mendes and Boyens.

Osorio is banking on being able to find the right combination in the back to go with an athletic and versatile set of attackers. In fact, with so many speedy threats up top, don't be surprised if Osorio opts for a 4-2-3-1 formation, at least early on in the season, to provide some support while his back line develops. Four attacking players might not seem like enough, but when Juan Pablo Angel is one of those four, it can be enough. Eventually the defense will need to be able to stand alone, because the Red Bulls will almost certainly be looking for opportunities to unveil an attacking-heavy lineup.

If the Red Bulls find a serviceable back four, and if Jorge Rojas plays well, the Red Bulls have the depth and attacking weapons to push the top teams in the East, and at the very least secure a playoff berth in their own conference.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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