As the curtains get set to raise on the 10th Major League Soccer season, MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley continues to fine-tune his roster and make some last-minute adjustments to the squad that hopes to bring an MLS championship trophy to the Meadowlands for the first time.
"It's been an unusual preseason with injuries, and with Eddie Gaven having been away so much [on national team duty], we really haven't had our full group together," said Bradley after training this week at Giants Stadium. "There are still some players that we are bringing in here and looking at, so we'll shoot to start fast but we understand that this team is still being built."
Bradley has picked up a few lessons along his path to becoming the league's all-time leader in coaching wins, and one of the things he learned is that sustaining the momentum gained from a few quick wins can be tough to translate into victories in September and October.
"We understand that the steady progress you make throughout the season puts you in position at the end," Bradley said. "We've had good starts the last two years, and haven't been able to sustain that all the way to the end."
The slow and steady philosophy carries through the locker room, with veterans and young players alike stressing the importance of consistency rather than the need to get off to a fast start.
"I think we need to take things in smaller chunks this year. Our goal is to win the MLS Cup championship, but more importantly we have to look at our schedule in small bunches of two and three games and take care of the immediate task at hand," goalkeeper Zach Wells said.
Added veteran defender Jeff Agoos: "You definitely want to start on the right foot, but how you finish is certainly more important than how you start in this league."
There are, however, still questions waiting to be answered before anyone will be able to reasonably judge the MetroStars' chances this year.
Youri Djorkaeff's health will feature prominently in the team's fortunes this year. The 37-year-old midfielder continues to work his way back from a left quadriceps strain he picked up in preseason training in Ecuador, and Bradley expects to be without his services for "a couple of weeks."
Adding the French World Cup winner into an attack that also features 2004 scoring champion Amado Guevara and rising U.S. national team star Gaven will hopefully help answer another question: Where will the goals come from?
The bulk of the goal scoring responsibility will fall on John Wolyniec and Sergio Galvan Rey. Wolyniec impressed in his role as a second-choice striker last year, but this will be the first time in his career that he enters a season feeling the weight of expectation on his shoulders as the team's main striker.
Galvan Rey simply hopes to prove that his dismal 2004 campaign was an anomaly. Recapturing the form that once earned him the "King of Goals" nickname might prove impossible, but he needs to find more than the two goals he produced last year if he wants to hold onto his starting spot.
One question mark -- the strength of the defense -- might turn out to be a pleasant surprise. Anchored by the addition of Agoos, the unit is smart, athletic, and balanced. Second-year centerback Jeff Parke, who Wells calls "a freakish athlete with ridiculous recovery speed," is poised to become a star in the league. Pairing with Parke in the middle of the four-man back line is Carlos Mendes, a 24-year-old who was signed last week after playing in the A-League. Last season's iron-man defender, Chris Leitch, will provide additional veteran support at the right back spot.
"Carlos was a good addition to this team. He's a smart, intelligent defender, good in one-on-one situations, and he's fit in well here," said Agoos. "All in all, the defenders we have are all strong -- we just have to work more with our midfielders."
Bradley and his coaching staff understand the importance of establishing their position in the tightly packed Eastern Conference. But they also realize that the championship will not be won in the first few games, and they are setting their sights on a long, consistent run through to the playoffs.
Says Bradley: "The whole thing is going to take some time, but nonetheless, we are ready to get started."
Rich Schneider is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.