UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. — After a 1-1 draw over the weekend at Vancouver, the Red Bulls took to the practice field at Montclair State University for the first time this week on Tuesday, hoping to piece together a competitive starting 11 for Saturday night’s home match against Columbus.
New York are now down five regulars who have started matches for the team so far in the 2011 season. With Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream with the US national team for Gold Cup duty, Dane Richards in Brazil with the Jamaica, Dwayne De Rosario over with Canada and Rafa Márquez set to captain Mexico, head coach Hans Backe has a tall task ahead to replace that production and stability in the lineup.
Against the Whitecaps, Backe used a mish-mash lineup that included debutants Austin da Luz and Matt Kassel (pictured above). And he’s expecting more of reserves to fill the voids until the regulars return from the Gold Cup.
“It’s always great opportunity for them to get some minutes, to prove themselves when there is the need,” Backe told MLSsoccer.com. “When the first-choice players aren’t around, they’re called on to step up and play a larger role.”
Training on Tuesday took on a competitive edge, with the remaining starters and the reserves battling and scrapping. Tempers flared a bit as players challenged for the ball, hoping to make an impression on Backe and the coaching staff.
The small-sided games in particular got physical, with several players getting heated and upset over the lack of “officiating” from the coaching staff. Backe just smiled, knowing that the competition and emotion was good for a team that hasn’t won in their last five matches.
“We all knew that there would be a chance for minutes, to get game action,” da Luz said. “We’ve all been working hard in training, really working it the past few weeks to get ready for this time, to get ready for when the starters would be gone. We all want to be ready for this moment.”
Red Bulls leading scorer Thierry Henry participated fully in training on Tuesday morning after sitting out New York's trip to Vancouver last weekend as he dealt with a nagging knee injury. Backe anticipates he'll be ready in time to face the Crew.
“Thierry trained today, seemed fine,” Backe said. “He looked well enough. I expect him to be available for Saturday.”
In the second half of Saturday’s draw, Carlos Mendes limped off the field with an injury and was replaced by Kassel. The veteran center back did not train on Tuesday but went through some rehab for the injury.
“Carlos should be ready for training on Thursday,” Backe said. “That’s good news.”
Backe does not anticipate midfielder Carl Robinson being available anytime soon, as the Welshman still continues to recover from a knee injury.
Danish left winger Brian Nielsen ran onto the field following training to do fitness work on his own.
Brazilian midfielder Marcos Paullo took a nasty slide tackle during the small-sided game and went down hard, clutching his left leg below the knee. He limped away after receiving attention from the training staff and rejoined the game in short order.
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer