While there's a bit of a competition in net and some questions that still seem to need answering along the back line, one place the Red Bulls seem remarkably sturdy is in the midfield.
In picking the four in the middle, Head Coach Mike Petke has no shortage of options. He returns the 2013 starting four of Jonny Steele, Dax McCarty, Tim Cahill and Eric Alexander, retained super sub and pace merchant Lloyd Sam, added Bobby Convey and continues to transition Peguy Luyindula from striker to playmaking midfielder.
All seven of the above are MLS starters, which should allow Petke to do some mixing and matching tactically and allow some squad rotation.
But other players are going to be knocking on the door for playing time, too. Ruben Bover, who garnered praise for his play in the reserve league last season, had a good pre-season, blasting home two goals during the Disney Pro Soccer Classic. There are plenty of Red Bulls fans high on 19-year-old Marius Obekop, who has the speed and technical ability to abuse teams as a late game sub now and be a regular MLS contributor later. Michael Bustamante showed what he could do in an emergency start last season, assisting a Thierry Henry goal against Toronto FC. He can contribute, as well.
The only rostered midfielder who likely won't seem much time this season is Ian Christianson. The 2013 draft pick spent most of his rookie season injured and hasn't played at all this pre-season.
With that kind of depth, the Red Bulls certainly can compete for the Supporters' Shield, MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League.
That is, if Petke can get a buy-in from the above 10 players. Last season, there was a lot of talk about players doing whatever was asked of them -- if Petke needed Alexander to ride the pine, he'd do it, vice versa with Sam, or Luyindula or whoever -- but with the competition for spots surely tougher (and bigger) it might be difficult to keep a player to thinks he deserves to be in the starting XI regularly happy.
How likely that is remains to be seen. Convey, whose reported maturity problems lead some Red Bulls fans to be leery about the deal, has, by his own admission, become a "less selfish" player. If former Paris Saint-Germain man Peguy Luyindula wasn't upset about minutes last year, he's likely fine with his changed role as an attacking midfielder. Last season, Sam wanted more minutes, and Petke got him to channel that desire into some impressive performances.
Making this whole thing fulfill its potential, really, falls on Petke's shoulders. The second year head coach has got the players. It's up to him to put them in the right places at the right times to get them to succeed. If the midfield is going to work, it's going to be because Petke got everyone on the same page and used each player properly.
If not, it won't resemble a complete train wreck, but we certainly won't be marveling over the Red Bulls' machine-like midfield.