UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – The Red Bulls face a daunting task when they face the Columbus Crew in Ohio on Saturday.
Historically they have struggled on Crew turf, including a 2-0 loss last year. But compounding the issue is that the Red Bulls come into the conference battle a different team than the one that won their season opener on Saturday as they are missing four starters from the win over Seattle.
With Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo with the United States national team, Dane Richards representing Jamaica and Mexican captain Rafa Marquez also called away, New York are missing some star power in their starting XI.
Ream and Márquez would otherwise be the starting central defenders, meaning head coach Hans Backe is turning to veteran Carlos Mendes to help fill the void. In the midst of upheal and Backe's lineup mix-and-match game, Mendes represents a known quantity.
[inline_node:315213]The veteran worked his way into the starting XI by summertime last year following a protracted recovery from injury. And like 2010, Mendes is willing to wait his turn and bide his time.
“We have a deep team, we have a talented team,” Mendes told MLSSoccer.com. “Personally, I’m very excited about the Red Bulls this year. It is a more competitive team and we’re all battling hard to get minutes and make ourselves better.”
But with all that talent comes the risk of getting stale.
Mendes last played on Mar. 8 when the Red Bulls faced Club Atlas in a preseason friendly. That will mean an 18-day layoff when he takes the field on Saturday, but he says that he is ready to compete in a hostile environment against an opponent who finished in second place in the conference last year and won the Supporters' Shield in 2008 and '09.
Even with the layoff, Mendes said he is in better shape than he was last season when he ended up using the US Open Cup to get game-ready for MLS play.
And even if he’s not starting or even playing every game – Mendes was an unused substitute on Saturday night – he attributes a more competitive training environment this year for helping him stay fit.
“I feel good, I feel really fit right now. I had a lot of games in preseason to get ready and get sharp,” Mendes said. “The challenge with the depth we have this year is to be sharp and always ready to play, that if coach calls on you, you’re ready.”
The rugged central defender — who recently turned 30 and, having been with the franchise for seven years is the longest-tenured player on the team — is training every day to be “ready.”
“That’s what it is all about — working hard and doing things right,” Mendes said. “Bringing it every day in training whether you’re starting or not. I know that if I work hard and the play the way I can play, I will get my chances. I just need to show that every day.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer