The New York Red Bulls will begin their journey toward the club's first MLS Cup title in Mexico, where the team's pre-season will hit full swing.
The regular season Eastern Conference champions are coming in off a busy off-season that saw the club's roster revamped and expectations raised for a team loaded with headliners.
Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez are embarking on their first pre-seasons with the Red Bulls, while U.S. national team striker Juan Agudelo prepares for an important season in his blossoming career.
For head coach Hans Backe, the challenge will be addressing the weaknesses that kept the Red Bulls from going further in last year's playoffs. From a defense that needed bolstering, to an attack that must adapt to life after Juan Pablo Angel, the Red Bulls are a work in progress despite being the odds-on favorite to win the Eastern Conference title.
Here is a closer look at the New York Red Bulls pre-season:
NEW YORK RED BULLS
Training Schedule: February 4-14 in Cancun, Mexico; February 14-16 in Guadalajara, Mexico; February 21-27 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; March 3rd to March March 11th in Phoenix, Arizona
Preseason Game Schedule: Feb. 15th vs. Chivas de Guadalajara at Omnilife Stadium; Feb. 23rd vs. Chicago Fire in Fort Lauderdale; Feb. 26th vs. Miami FC in Fort Lauderdale; March 4th vs. Sporting Kansas City in Phoenix; March 7th vs FC Dallas in Phoenix.
Key Arrivals: F- Luke Rodgers, F- Corey Hertzog, M- Jan Gunnar Solli, M- Matt Kassel, M-John Rooney, D- Sacir Hot, D Tyler Lassiter
Key Departures: F-Juan Pablo Angel, M-Jeremy Hall, M-Luke Sassano, M-Sinisa Ubiparipovic, M- Seth Stammler, D- Mike Petke, D-Andrew Boyens.
What to Watch for: The club is still searching for defensive depth, and the Red Bulls are believed to still be in the market for a centerback and right back. The team's ability to land a central defender will determine whether Hans Backe can deploy Rafa Marquez in central midfield, or if he will have to pair Marquez with Tim Ream. Carlos Mendes was a serviceable starter in central defense in 2010 but Backe has made it clear he's looking to upgrade the back-line.
Another thing to look for is how Luke Rodgers fits into the team and whether his arrival will slow Juan Agudelo's ascent into the starting lineup. With Agudelo, Rodgers and rookie Corey Hertzog, Backe now has some speed options to pair up with Thierry Henry, and he looks ready to use that depth to play more of a 4-3-3 in 2011.
Agudelo figures to eventually become a starter, but Backe appears wary of putting him under pressure too quickly. While that may be the case, Agudelo has all the makes of a breakout star in 2011.
The arrival of Solli has some wondering if he can make an impact like Joel Lindpere made in 2010, but first the Red Bulls must figure out where best to deploy the Norwegian midfielder/defender. He can play right back or as a winger or central midfielder.
Left back appears to be Roy Miller's position to lose, and the close will be watching closely to see if he looks more like the strong fullback from early in 2010, or the shaky liability the team saw in the playoffs.
Of Note: Marquez recently turned down a call-up by the Mexican national team to stay with the Red Bulls in pre-season. …Thierry Henry spent part of the off-season training with Arsenal. … The Red Bulls added two high-profile Homegrown Player signings this winter in Sacir Hot and Matt Kassel. While Kassel is the more well-known prospect to most Red Bulls fans, Hot is considered the player more likely to develop into an impact player. Hot is a member of the U.S. Under-20 national team. …Though it is still early in the pre-season, Backe is already drawing some comparisons between Tim Ream and Red Bulls rookie Tyler Lassiter, another left-footed central defender expected to provide quality depth in the back.