BY DAVE MARTINEZ
Extreme makeovers are nothing new in the world of the New York Red Bulls, but this offseason was a roller coaster even by the Red Bulls’ standards.
From the moment D.C. United knocked New York out of the playoffs last fall, the transformation began (though many would argue it started with the firing of Erik Soler). Red Bulls Global Director of Soccer Gerard Houllier took a hands-on approach with the team and made his fury felt cutting ten players the morning after the team’s ouster.
Without a coach in place, changes occurred in rapid fire succession. The team traded for Jamison Olave, Kosuke Kimura and Fabian Espindola. They acquired Juninho Pernambucano. Most impressively, they cut the albatross that was Rafa Marquez’s contract. Though the decision to acquire players without someone at the helm was questionable, the returns were undeniably positive.
For all the good, there was also consternation. Kenny Cooper and his 18 goals were sent off to FC Dallas, leaving a gaping hole to fill on the offensive end. The Red Bulls failed all winter long in signing a head coach. Names like Gary McAllister, Paulo Sousa and a host of other Europeans were seen as suitors but never took the throne. The MLS Draft came and went without a boss at the touchline.
Then the impossible happened. With all other options exhausted, they turned to the one man who stuck through the entire winter hoping for his name to be called; Mike Petke.
The Petke era has revitalized the spirits of the team in this shortened pre-season. His touch-line demeanor is a complete 180 from his predecessor, Hans Backe. Fiery, loud and unafraid to push his players, Petke has taken the reigns of this team and transformed the once-rigid Red Bull system in his image; free flowing, hard-working and unafraid to take risks.
One question still remains though. Can Petke, with zero head coaching experience, handle the job? If he can’t, the Red Bulls could wind up struggling despite their wealth of talent. And if he can? This could finally be a year Red Bulls fans can take joy in.
Here is a closer look at the New York Red Bulls heading into the 2013 season:
NEW YORK RED BULLS SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 16-9-9, 57 points (third in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: MF Juninho, D Jamison Olave, F Fabian Espindola, MF Ruben Izquierdo, D Kosuke Kimura
KEY LOSSES: D Rafa Marquez, F Kenny Cooper, MF Joel Lindpere, MF Teemu Tainio, MF Jan Gunnar Solli, D Wilman Conde, F Sebastien LeToux
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Juninho. The 38-year-old Brazilian veteran has been the talk of of pre-season for the Red Bulls. Playing an advanced midfielders role, he has been key to the fluidity of the new look Petke offense while serving as a vital distributor in the team’s build-up. Of course, one would be remiss to leave off his most impressive attribute; his deadly accuracy on dead ball situations. “He is a phenomenon,” Espindola said. “One time in training he started to take free kicks from distance and it is absolutely amazing how he hits the ball. It’s fun to watch him make the goalkeeper work.”
PRESSURE IS ON: Mike Petke. There is no question so much of this season rides on the back of the team’s rookie coach. Early returns have been favorable from the players who have taken to their young coach’s fiery personality and instilled it into the team’s mentality. However positive his signing has been for the team, he still was the de facto choice for the job. That alone puts expectations on a greater level and may even mean a quicker hook from the team’s Austrian overlords if their multi-million dollar investment begins to falter.
Predicting the Red Bulls future is never an easy task, but this year may just take the cake.
Short term, you can expect lots of competition, a new look offense and a good amount of tinkering in the starting XI.
“Nobody has a guaranteed spot here – nobody,” Petke tells SBI. “There are going to be eleven starters this weekend (against Portland) – it doesn’t mean they are going to be the same eleven starters the following weekend.
“I am a firm believer in competition pushing you, pushing players, and if it doesn’t then they answered a very big question for me. They can’t handle that kind of pressure and they don’t want that type of environment? Well that is not the type of player I want around here.”
A leaky defensive unit has drawn the ire of Petke early in preseason. He has tried various different fronts and has openly petitioned his defenders to step up to the challenge. Newly-acquired Colombian centerback Jamison Olave is expected to anchor the middle, with Heath Pearce looking like the favorite to start alongside Olave. That would leave Markus Holgersson on the bench, and could mean Roy Miller starting at left back.
The right back position is log-jammed with three viable options in Kosuke Kimura, Connor Lade and Brandon Barklage, with Lade’s versatility making him an option to use at other spots as well.
Meanwhile, in midfield, newcomer Ruben Izquierdo has heeded Petke’s call, seemingly the winner of the right midfielder spot once thought to be solidly under wraps by Englishman Lloyd Sam.
On the offensive end, Petke will look to break with past tradition. Hans Backe, known to be a rigid tactician, frowned upon free movement and creative interchange on the offense. With Henry, Juninho, Cahill and Espindola up top, the Red Bulls new boss believes his starters have the soccer minds to make better use of their space and opportunities.
“They are not robots,” Petke explained. “Maybe you can get away with that with the defenders … but as far as the attacking, we have such creative and free flowing type players, why would I bottle that up? Let them go, let them do their thing. There of course is going to be some structure, there is going to be starting points, there is going to be a way we are going to go but there is not going to be a cap on that. They are going to go out and do their thing.
“I am going to put a structure out there. I am going to put a starting point out there for players but I highly doubt that it is going to end like that. I don’t believe in one person staying in one place. As long as it’s recognizable with all the players, it’s not just one player running somewhere and no one filling in his spot. There has to be that understanding. Is that easy to do? It’s had its ups and downs so far.”
The long term prospects of the team will greatly hinge on the success or failure of this system.
All in all, the team has the talent to make a run into the playoffs, but that has been the story for the better part of the past four years. The defense has no shortage of talent at nearly every position. The midfield has lost the wing-heavy characteristics of the Dane Richards / Joel Lindpere days but has gained a stronger interior presence led by the likes of Cahill, Juninho and Dax McCarty. Up top, Henry gains a slashing partner in Espindola; something he hasn’t had since the days of Luke Rodgers. The duo will be tasked to prove their combined efforts outweigh the loss of Kenny Cooper and his scoring production.
If there is a major concern with the team, it lies in the back. Luis Robles proved reliable down the stretch last season but has yet to face the rigors of a demanding MLS season. With Ryan Meara still recovering from surgery and young Academy standout Santino Casano serving as his lone backup, Robles will be relied upon heavily at the onset of the season as a leaky defense tries to find its identity in the opening matches.
For now, the team is simply content with their preseason achievements and looking forward to the coming season.
“I am happiest looking back on the past two pre-seasons as assistant coach and the camaraderie, the attitude early in preseason,” Petke said. “We have had three, four solid weeks of just everybody enjoying themselves, enjoying the team, the staff and players getting along, having good relationships whereas maybe even the first week last year, the environment wasn’t great, some things were going on, it has been all together so far which is very important to me”.