There was a buzz around Giants Stadium Friday as the New York Red Bulls prepared for their home opener against the New England Revolution Saturday night.
The stage where recording artists Shakira and Wyclef Jean will perform at halftime was being constructed, acres of television cables were being unraveled from tractor trailers and a rack of Hugo Boss suits was wheeled into the Red Bulls locker room.
But through all the change, all the pomp and circumstance off the field, one thing remains constant: the New England Revolution.
A year after losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup, the Revs are essentially the same team. With the scoring ability of the red-hot Taylor Twellman, Clint Dempsey and Pat Noonan, the work ethic of Shalrie Joseph in the middle of the park and the service of Steve Ralston, the Revs are one of the most dangerous attacking sides in MLS.
"The way they play, they're a strong attacking team," Red Bulls coach Mo Johnston said. "They're a strong unit, a good team and we respect that. But that's as far as it will go."
Last year, Seth Stammler was able to shut down Ralston in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series at Giants Stadium. Staying tight on Ralston and keeping the Revs set pieces to a minimum are keys for the Red Bulls' success.
"I think it's proven that Ralston is kind of the playmaker, he's dangerous at whipping balls in and creating dangerous opportunities for their team," Stammler said. "And they have the midfielders who are willing to do the running to get on the end of those crosses."
Thanks to a $100,000 gift from Red Bull, the game will be played on grass rather than the usual rock-hard FieldTurf surface at Giants Stadium and the team had its first training session on the newly rolled out grass Friday.
"It's soft, it's heavy so I think the ball is going to be moving a little slower," midfielder Chris Henderson said. "When you can wear studs and cleats and not be afraid to dig it, it's great."
The field, which is cut a little lower than the surfaces that were laid down for the Gold Cup last year, has dead spots and plays a bit slow. But it is grass and it is still preferred by the players.
"They cut it nice and short now, the ball rolls, it's a little firmer underneath," Tony Meola said of the surface, which was laid out Wednesday. "For the goalkeepers, if you can get it on the second bounce, you're OK."
Meola will join the U.S. national team Sunday for its friendly against Jamaica in Cary, N.C., on Tuesday. Assuming he plays, it will be Meola's milestone 100th cap.
"It's hard to believe, it's not really what you think about when you're playing," Meola said. "To play in 100 national team games, it feels like a ... well, it's been an eternity. It's a big honor for me."
Johnston went with both a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2 formation in training Friday. When he played with three in the back, Jeff Parke played in the middle with Carlos Mendes on the left and Marvell Wynne on the right. Danny O'Rourke was the defensive midfielder, playing behind Amado Guevara with Henderson on the left, Peter Canero on the right and Mike Magee playing next to Henderson. Youri Djorkaeff and Edson Buddle were up front.
When Johnston switched to four, Taylor Graham joined Parke, Henderson moved wide right in the midfield with Stammler on the left and Canero was off.
With all that is going on around them, from Pele to Shakira to Challenger to an expected crowd of 35,000-40,000, the focus must stay on the field for the Red Bulls.
"I told them this morning, the circus is in town," Johnston said of his meeting with his team. "But come 7:30 p.m., the bells and whistles are not there and we have to do a job and that's play soccer and try and attract these fans back."
Dylan Butler is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.