Greg Lalas
Thursday March 19th, 2009

NEW YORK -- Juan Carlos Osorio didn't pay much attention to the opening remarks given at the New York Red Bulls media day earlier this week. He kept glancing around to see who was around, shook the extended hands of a few meandering journos and half-heartedly watched the 2008 retrospective video played.

When an image of the under-construction Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., appeared on the screen, he leaned over to me and whispered, "This is the first time I have seen it. I have not looked at the new stadium. I only want to see it when it is finished and we take the team onto the field."

"The team" is paramount to Osorio. A $200 million-plus stadium is nice, but it's not why he is here. Osorio recognizes that the p.r. stuff is important (and, trust me, he can play the media when he wants to), but ultimately his focus is the game. He famously jots notes to himself about strategy and tactics, a new set piece, an alternative way to contain an opponent. If some people are students of the game, Osorio is a tenured scholar.

"At the professional level, it comes down to details," Osorio told me this week. He was speaking by phone just after Red Bulls training for Thursday's season opener at Seattle Sounders FC (9 p.m., ESPN2). "In my early days, my dad always emphasized that whatever I decide to do that I should be very professional and study. So I developed my habits of analyzing and studying games."

A little more than a year ago, when Osorio was first named head coach of the Red Bulls, taking over after the firing of Bruce Arena and the protracted tug-of-war with his previous employers, the Chicago Fire, many observers openly questioned the move. Arena had taken the team to the playoffs in '07, but it never looked convincing and no one expected Osorio's team to fare much better in '08. And it didn't. "JCO," as he is often referred to in memos and notes, tinkered constantly with the lineup -- too often for some players' liking -- and some of his midseason signings turned out to be lemons. In the end, the Red Bulls posted a 10-11-9 regular-season record and slinked into the playoffs.

But then something magical happened. The team found its groove and it was as slick as Astroturf in the rain. The catchword was "speed." Electrifying winger Dane Richards raced his way into the hearts of long-suffering New York fans, leading the Bulls to their first-ever MLS Cup final. If the diminutive Jamaican was the bullet, masterful Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel was the gun, providing the central power and calibrated hold-up play that allowed Richards to dominate on the counterattack.

"Last year, I remember a game at San Jose," Osorio said. "We did not have Dane. They realized that and they squished the game. They defended very high. We never got out of our half. We had no one to stretch the game. I hate to say it, but we were very predictable."

In the past few months, Osorio has done what he can to prevent such a situation from ever occurring again. He has redefined his roster based on speed, speed and more speed. The Red Bulls locker room has as much in common with a paddock at Churchill Downs as it does with a soccer team. In addition to Richards, the stable of thoroughbreds includes Danleigh Borman, Macoumba Kandji and Matthew Mbuta, both of whom were picked up late last year. This offseason, Osorio added former New England left winger Khano Smith, first-round draft pick Jeremy Hall and ex-FC Dallas striker Dominic Oduro.

"I think I might put them all out at once as a kind of surprise," Osorio whispered to me during the Red Bulls media day, a sly smile on his face.

Whether he was joking or not, it's almost as if Osorio is afraid of what will happen if he unleashes all his speed demons. And with good reason. Too many speedsters tends to leave huge gaps in the defense. Also, there is scant evidence that a team whose coach needs a starter's gun instead of a whistle can earn any silverware, let alone the first real piece of silverware in the New York franchise's history.

"We have strengthened the team to the best of our ability," the coach said. "Now it's down to the players."

It's interesting how Osorio actually downplays the speed effect. Coaches love to talk about how you can teach the game, but you can't teach athleticism; however, at the highest level, you really need both. Look at the past five MLS Cup winners: Columbus, Houston (twice), Los Angeles and D.C. United. None of these teams was based on athleticism. They revolved around the central presence of a player who could dictate the pace of the game, be it break-neck or deliberate. The winning teams need a puppeteer, someone who can pull the strings in the middle of the park while under enormous pressure to thrive.

Last year, the ageless Guillermo Barros Schelotto was masterful for the Crew. In '06 and '07, Dwayne De Rosario was the wizard behind the curtain for Houston. L.A. won in '05 because of an exemplary run of form by Landon Donovan, during which he seemed to be able to do whatever he pleased. And in '04, United's Christian Gómez seemed to channel his compatriot Diego Maradona with his elegance at the No. 10 position.

For New York in '09, the puppeteer role falls to Venezuelan Jorge Rojas who, by most accounts, was unimpressive after arriving in New York in midseason last year. He obviously had the talent, but he never used it effectively. Things are different this year. For one, Rojas has had a full offseason to rest and a full preseason to build up his fitness and his rapport with his teammates. For another, he has all those lightning bolts around him.

"Jorge will benefit," Osorio said. "He can be creative, make us play and link the play up to the strikers. That is how we built the team, to give the midfield a lot of options up front. Teams can no longer come high on us."

But still -- will it work? "If they perform to their abilities," Osorio said, "we will compete for honors."

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