A new coach, a new system and a new philosophy has worked wonders for the Red Bulls this preseason.
The worst team in all of MLS last season is undefeated at 4-0-3 after capturing the inaugural Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic Saturday night, thanks to an impressive hat trick by Juan Pablo Angel in an emphatic 4-0 triumph against Toronto FC.
Yet, the players realize it is way too early to get excited because while the results are encouraging, especially compared to last year's 5-19-6 finish, the games do not count and there is still a long road ahead.
"Well, I could tell you that it feels like night and day compared to last year," Red Bulls veteran defender Mike Petke said after Saturday's victory at ESPN's Wide World of Sports. "However, I don't have to remind too many people on how we did in the preseason last year. We were close to perfect in preseason as well. However, that's half joking, but half serious to keep it in perspective. We're playing much differently this year. It just feels good. It really does."
Petke credited the new regime under coach Hans Backe and sporting director and general manager Erik Soler. Under Juan Carlos Osorio the past two seasons, the Red Bulls seemed to change lineups and formations as quickly as the players changed underwear.
"There are a million differences. the biggest ones are absolutely the discipline, the accountability, the sheer game plan that he [Backe] has laid out and stuck to for a month and a half. The game plan was put down, how we were going to play and what kind of team we were going to be. It's one thing to just say it. It's another thing to say it and work on it every day. And that's what we've done.
"Am I saying we're going to sit here and we're going to win a championship? No, but we're definitely a step in the right direction and."
What happened Saturday night must have stunned the crowd, who braved unusual central Florida temperatures in the mid-40 to watch a doubleheader (the Houston Dynamo defeated FC Dallas in the first game, 2-1). They certainly were entertained by a tremendous performance by Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo Angel, who was in midseason form with a hat trick and spectacular miss on a bicycle kick that had the appreciative spectators applauding his efforts as well.
Backe called Angel's show "excellent."
"It was very important for him to start scoring some goals," he added. "It was some good set-ups from [midfielder Roy] Miller and the other guys. But he was there where he should be as a striker. For his confidence it was great that he scored three."
The game seemed to be a continuation of the Red Bulls' 5-0 thumping of Toronto, which eliminated the team from playoff contention in the 2009 season finale.
The former Colombian international attempted a 16-yard bicycle kick that went wide in the 15th minute, but the spectators applauded his brazen attempt.
Angel found the back of the net in the 32nd minute, heading home Joel Lindpere's line drive corner kick from point-blank range to the near post.
Five minutes later he doubled the lead, finishing a rapid build-up on the left side. Rookie central defender Tim Ream started the play with a pass to Miller, who found Angel in the penalty area. Angel quickly converted past goalkeeper Stefan Frei for a two-goal advantage.
Angel made it a pure hat trick in the 49th minute, converting a feed from rookie Austin da Luz.
"I've been feeling great," Angel said. "As long as I don't have to touch the turf, I feel phenomenal."
Angel was referring to the artificial turf, which he dislikes with a passion after playing on it for home games at Giants Stadium the past three years. This year the Red Bulls will play on the green grass of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
"Preseason has been good," Angel said. "The atmosphere in the camp has been great. I have been enjoying every second of it. I feel little by little [finding] my form. Any game is important for any striker to score goals. When you get a hat trick, obviously that is building your confidence up. I felt well today in general, not just because of the goals. The movement, the touch, the work rate. feeling well in general."
Forward Conor Chinn put an exclamation point on the night, finishing a rare all-rookie scoring line on the stats sheet. Midfielder Tony Tchani fed da Luz in the left corner. Da Luz then sent a cross to Chinn, who headed the ball in.
The Red Bulls received a major scare in the 69th minute when Toronto midfielder Julian de Guzman kicked Angel in the right knee. Angel, the team's all-time leading goalscorer, slumped to the field and withered in pain, clutching his right knee at midfield.
Escorted off the field by team athletic trainer Rick Guter, Angel walked with a slight limp. He was able to remain on the bench and attend the award ceremony afterwards and sign autographs for fans as well.
He will be re-examined by Guter as early as Sunday and if needed, by a doctor, this week.
"It shouldn't happen," Angel said. "The ball was far off. It was a stupid tackle. Hopefully, there's nothing serious, especially from a player that with his experience. I'm sure he didn't mean it, but it shouldn't happen."
Backe said a "player like that should have a little bit more respect. When you can't reach the ball, there is no way to go for that kind of kick."
Needless to say, Angel's teammates were not too happy about the foul and injury.
"It's probably a good thing I wasn't on the field," said Petke, who had been substituted by then. "It probably would have been my first red card.
"It just thought it was a combination of them being frustrated and an average player putting a horrible tackle on a good player. Uncalled for."
Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.