When it comes to relatively meaningless tournaments, the New York Red Bulls are unusually adept at capturing silverware. Winners of the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic in 2010 and the Emirates Cup in 2011, the Red Bulls will play four matches in this year's iteration of the Desert Diamond Cup - three in the group stage and then a championship or third place game over the next ten days. They will be joined this year by the New England Revolution, Seattle Sounders, and Real Salt Lake.
Despite their aforementioned Disney and Emirates Cup wins, the Red Bulls have not fared as well in the Desert Diamond Cup. In 2011, the tournament included the Red Bulls and one other MLS team, Sporting Kansas City, as well as lower-division teams FC Tuscon and the Arizona Sahuaros. Each team played just two matches and SKC finished first on goal differential over New York. Last year, the tournament changed to its current format with the same teams as 2013 except the LA Galaxy participated instead of Seattle. The Red Bulls managed just two goals in one win our of four games.
Tournament setting or not, exhibition games are rarely an accurate barometer of predicting a team's success in a long league season. That said, roster and starting spots are on the line, and while evaluating certain players may take precedence over results, professional athletes are too competitive not to care at all who wins or loses. There is even incentive to finish in the top two this year, as not only will all matches be streamed on MLSsoccer.com, but the Final will be shown live on the NBC Sports Network for the first time next Saturday, February 23, at 8 pm EST.
While the Red Bulls have opened their preseason with wins against the Columbus Crew and Malmo FF of the Swedish First Division, matches against two of Major League Soccer's better clubs and an Eastern Conference foe in New England will be good opportunities for New York to gel ahead of their season opener in early March. Here are four things we'll be watching for in these four preseason matches:
1) What goalkeeper controversy? The Red Bulls have started EIGHT different goalkeepers since 2010. With Ryan Meara still on the mend from an injury last season, the job appears to be Luis Robles' to lose. If there is a window of opportunity for Meara to challenge for the starting job, Robles is going to look to shut it long before the league season starts on March 3.
2) Welcome back, Connor. Connor Lade had a whirlwind of a first year as a professional soccer player. With twenty-two league appearances for New York under his belt, he finished fifth in rookie of the year voting and spent his offseason training with Sevilla in La Liga and then with the U.S. National Team. With an extended contract, the Red Bulls have committed to their rising star, and it's up to him to return the favor with a sophomore campaign that shows improved decision making and consistency.
3) Consistent defense not conceding goals early. A major critique of the 2012 Red Bulls was their tendency to give up goals early. While it's still only preseason, will whichever players who start the matches come out focused and with enough energy to prevent this from continuing to plague the team in 2013? Last week, a 3' goal scored by Malmo FF was not an ideal way to open the match, exhibition or not.
4) Hello, my name is... There are thirteen new names on the Red Bulls' roster for the Desert Diamond Cup compared to the last time they took the field in 2012, not including three trialists or Tyler Ruthven who is also technically on trial after his contract was terminated following the season last year. While some may not see a single minute of league play for the Red Bulls, at least not right away, a four game preseason tournament will give players, whether they are projected starters, options off the bench, or long-term prospects, to begin making a name for themselves. And with fan favorites Joel Lindpere and Kenny Cooper no longer with the team, the hearts of Red Bull fans are ready to be won. I'm looking in your direction, clean-cut Fabian Espindola.