Keepers are a breed apart in many ways, and often train separately with their own coach, doing their own drills, living in their own world. Still, the goalie, isolated in his own penalty area for long stretches of a match, has the proper vantage point and plenty of time to peruse the product of a coach's labors.
The tinkering of lineups and personnel and formations and tactics by Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio has attracted much notice and some disdain, but as keeper Danny Cepero notes, the Osorio Method is as much about what a player is between the ears as what he does between the lines.
"In terms of his skills and what he brings as a coach, he's very adamant and very focused on keeping us mentally prepared," says Cepero, a veteran of just five pro games who is one step shy of winning an MLS Cup. "You can talk tactics until you're blue in the face, but at the end of the day it comes down to mental toughness, and he's very keen on keeping us in the mindset where we need to be confident."
Players lost to retirement, injuries and suspensions yielded a roller-coaster season and not until the last few weeks could Osorio settle on a lineup. Some of his choices were forced - MLS slapped 10-game bans on defender Jeff Parke and goalie Jon Conway, an injury ended the season for midfielder Seth Stammler - but Osorio also benched three of his four midseason international signings.
Steeling the center of midfield with rookie Luke Sassano and second-year pro Sinisa Ubiparipovic may have deprived New York of some experience, but it has worked well enough. The one midseason signing retained in the starting lineup, Diego Jimenez, overcame poor performances in recent months to further strengthen the middle, and Chris Leitch, who has ping-ponged between Columbus and New York in his seven pro seasons, has held solidly at right back.
There's been a lot of luck involved winning at Houston (3-0) and Real Salt Lake (1-0) in the playoffs, but stats are facts, and the Red Bulls have allowed just one goal in three postseason games. Cepero's saves have bailed out his team on a dozen occasions, but good goalkeeping has long been a staple of MLS playoff success.
This defensive resilience seems impossible from the same team that lost during the season by scores of 5-4, 4-0, 4-1, 5-1, and nearly blew its playoff chances in a 5-2 pounding at Chicago in its last game. New York backed into the playoffs when Columbus - now there's irony - beat D.C. United in the last game of the season.
"As I mentioned before, it's to keep telling the guys that if we defend properly, we are competitive," says Osorio. "We play within the rules, we're aggressive in a controlled manner, if we play for each other, we play with each other, we compete for each other and we just keep clean sheets, we'll always have a chance to score goals, as we proved in the last games."
The Fire put those five goals past Cepero in his second pro game, after he'd debuted by scoring an 80-yard goal against Columbus in a 3-1 win. If there's one player whose confidence could have been shattered, it would have to be a 23-year-old goalie who spent most of the season on-loan to USL-2 club Harrisburg and got thrown into the nets by Conway's suspension.
Osorio and goalkeeper coach Des McAleenan didn't let that happen. Toughening their young keeper is why they sent him to Harrisburg in the first place. "It wasn't like I was heartbroken at the end of the game," says Cepero. "You lose games. That's just the reality of things. Goals are scored against you and sometimes there's only so much you can do.
"We need to believe and have that desire, that passion that I was talking about earlier. In the league, there's so much parity and there's so much equality amongst the teams that at the end of the day it's the mental strength and the ability to maintain focus for 90 minutes. That's what's going to carry teams through."