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Sassano could help Red Bulls rebound
by Ridge Mahoney, March 26th, 2009 7AM
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[MLS] When the Red Bulls lined up at Home Depot Center last fall to play Columbus in MLS Cup 2008, rookie midfielder Luke Sassano took a spot in central midfield to start his fourth straight playoff game despite a sore ankle to which had been festooned a big bag of ice during the week. Last weekend, as the Red Bulls opened their 2009 season in a rowdy, boisterous Qwest Field against the expansion Sounders, he watched from the bench as everything New York accomplished in October and November seemed to vanish in a 3-0 defeat. Sassano looks set to return to the Red Bulls lineup for this weekend's home opener.

This week, with New York's roster shorn of several players called to their national teams, the odds are good he'll be back in the starting lineup. Yet as last year and last weekend demonstrated, there's not much security for a young American in MLS, especially under the tutelage of Juan Carlos Osorio, the chameleon head coach.

"He's a tactician, so he's very good at managing games and situations," says Sassano, who started only 11 games (18 appearances) yet played all but 19 minutes of the 2008 playoffs. "He'd put someone in and people would question it, and usually it worked out, or when he changed lineups two times in a game.

"Not only is he a really good coach with really good drills, his drills are things I've never seen. You'd think you'd see some repetitions in drills, but he understands the game really well and as the season went on we began to realize his philosophy: 'Every day is going to be a competitive day. There are no days off. The way you practice is the way you play.'

"I think that mentality led us to the final. Now in training you see the guys playing that way so we can get back there."

New York can rectify last week's embarrassment in its home opener Saturday against New England at Giants Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel). Neither team will be close to full strength; the Revs will be missing anywhere from three to five probable starters, and New York has lost several players to international duty, which is good news, of a sort, for Sassano.

With central midfielder Jorge Rojas away to play for Venezuela, Sassano might be paired with Juan Pietravallo, who got the start in Sassano's place against Seattle. Or Sassano could be alongside Sinisa Ubiparipovic. Stammler is another possibility as Sassano's central partner, with Ubiparipovic pushed up into Rojas's role in support of Juan Pablo Angel.

Former Rev Khano Smith might get a start against his former team, and with speedster Dane Richards on the right flank, New York could have flyers on both wings. Only the coach knows for sure, but after last week's debacle, he knows something has to be done.

"There's a lot more competition in the squad this year," says Sassano. "You can tell by how competitive the trainings are and the quality of play. No one's spot is really safe. In that sense, it's good for the team and for you on an individual level, because it makes you compete every day for your spot."

The team may look radically different again next week with the internationals back, and several other signed players available to play if their paperwork is done. Spanish midfielder Albert Celades will play as soon as he's ready, which would alter the midfield makeup yet again.

Sassano hasn't forgotten that last year's late push and playoff run came in the wake of a 10-11-9 season, which is another reason Osorio, a constant tinkerer, has been active during the winter. Defenders Alfredo Pacheco and Carlos Johnson, as well as Celades, will be in the mix sooner, not later, which Sassano believes will broaden the team's range as well as its depth.

"We have so many styles of play on the team, I think it's going to be really exciting to watch us play," he says. "We have creativity, we have speed, we have defense, we have guys who can keep the ball. Not that we didn't last year, but I think this year we'll also have that consistency."


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