HARRISON, N.J. — Part of the double whammy facing Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe this month isn’t just the loss of five regulars in their starting XI due to the Gold Cup; Backe now has to get his bench and reserve players ready to play.
With many of the younger players having spot minutes over the past month and perhaps 45 minutes in a friendly in Montreal in May, Backe’s team lacks both sharpness and fitness ahead of Saturday against Columbus (7:30 pm ET, Watch online).
This past week, there has been a heavy emphasis in training on small-sided games played at an intense, almost fever-pitch tempo.
“It looks OK,” Backe said. “It’s difficult to say until you play a competitive MLS game because the pace is so much faster.”
A number of players have taken to doing their own additional work outside of practice in order to get their game-shape up and ready. Austin da Luz, who made his MLS debut last Saturday in Vancouver, has been spending 15 minutes after each session running sprints. A number of other younger players have been adding games of keep-away and shooting drills, all to get that match sharpness.
Since so much of training is geared toward the starters and getting them ready for the next game, the time spent afterward in individual work is crucial for the younger players and veterans alike.
“You have to," defender Carlos Mendes said. "If you’re not playing as much, you have to put in the effort when you’re not getting as much time in training."
Another young player who made his debut on Saturday and should see an increased role over the next month is Matt Kassel. Even as he logs extra touches after practice, he knows that nothing will help him get ready for games quite like games.
“Obviously game fitness, there’s nothing that compares to it,” Kassel said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Mendes returned to the field at Red Bull Arena on Thursday after he rolled his ankle last Saturday at Empire Field in the 1-1 tie against the Vancouver Whitecaps. He primarily trained by himself, but said he’s doing well.
“Still a little bit of swelling, but feeling better,” Mendes said. “Definite improvement since Saturday, so that’s good.”
Backe anticipates having Mendes available against Columbus.
“He’s in,” Backe said. “He’ll train tomorrow. We’ll not take any risk with the ankle.”
After going winless in the month of May, the Red Bulls are hoping for a kinder June. With three straight ties, New York haven’t won in their last five league outings. It isn’t panic stuff quite yet for the club, but the upcoming match against the Crew is important nonetheless.
“When playing a team in the conference, you always want three points,” Henry said.
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer