Mini-camp survivors? Book 'em, flights to Southern California that is.
Three dozen players are going through the regimens of Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio at Home Depot Center, and by next week he'll have trimmed the squad to make room for a few more players, not counting Jozy Altidore, who scored a goal in his first national-team start in the 2-2 tie with Mexico Wednesday.
"I allowed all the players from last year's roster to come back into preseason, plus the draft picks, plus the few players that we identified in the mini-camp we had last week," said Osorio, who bailed on the Fire after just five months to take the Red Bulls' job in December. "We have had very good sessions and hopefully we will continue to do that and give everybody a chance to show what they are capable of."
Osorio's devotion to fitness and defensive accountability, which sparked a revival that propelled Chicago into the conference final, has already surfaced in the Red Bulls' camp.
"He demands a lot of us," said defender Carlos Mendes, a member of a back line that conceded 45 goals. "He pushes us, but he makes everything very competitive and I think this team is moving in the right direction and guys are really competing."
Red Bull competed strongly for the first two-thirds of the 2007 season, but fizzled after Labor Day, winning only one of its last seven games. It did tie four of those matches to finish as the No. 6 seed with a 12-11-7 record, but falling out of the playoffs to New England without scoring a goal in two matches prompted the departure of Bruce Arena.
Osorio is working with much the same cast (gone are Ronald Waterreus, Clint Mathis, Joe Vide and Santino Quaranta, among others), plus SuperDraft picks Eric Brunner (D), Luke Sassano (D/MF) and David Roth (MF), and the mini-camp survivors, who include ex-Rev Marshall Leonard, former Quake Tighe Dombrowski, and Red Bulls academy product Matt Kassell. Re-signed were forward Francis Doe and keeper Jon Conway, and coming back to New Jersey from his days with the MetroStars is Zach Thornton.
Despite the presence of experienced veterans Juan Pablo Angel, Dave van den Bergh, Claudio Reyna and Dema Kovalenko, and exciting youngsters Altidore and Dane Richards, Osorio's not ready to declare this a team that underachieved last year, as many surmised.
"I am not sure, because I think we've had some pretty good sessions, but not too much 11-v-11," he says, always mindful of team shape and decision-making, even early in preseason. "When we do that, and we play more games, that will really tell me how good these players are tactically.
"At the moment, I can see very good athletes, and some of them are very talented. Some of them are not as talented, but very genuine and hard-working, which I appreciate highly. I can answer that question farther down the line when we play more 11 v. 11 and I can see how well they can play the game on the bigger pitch and really competitive matches."
New York will play MLS opposition in the Carolina Challenge Cup next month, after training in Southern California and heading to Austria for sessions with parent club Red Bull Salzburg.
Its originally scheduled opener March 29 against San Jose was postponed because of renovation delays at the Quakes temporary home, Buck Shaw Stadium, so Red Bull doesn't open the regular season until April 5 against Columbus. Trust Osorio to use every minute until that first ball is rolled out.
"In my eyes, I will see what players I need to keep, and what players I need to move on, and what players I need to bring in to put a winning team on the pitch," says Osorio. "I am giving the best possible chance to everybody and hopefully I will make the right and wise decisions. Only time will tell."