BY DAVE MARTINEZ
Slowly but surely, Mike Petke’s plan is coming together.
Back-to-back late-game meltdowns on the road cast an ominous cloud over the New York Red Bulls season and erased whatever gains they had garnered in those two matches. After all, New York scored four goals in two matches while controlling long periods of play against both Portland and San Jose. That is an impressive achievement in and of itself.
Still, they couldn’t get out of their own way to achieve a positive result. With the Timbers, their pressing style evaporated after 45 minutes but gave a glimpse of what the team was capable of accomplishing. In San Jose, they played an ideal road tactic, nearly lulling the Earthquakes to sleep for 80 minutes en route to three points before their infamous Roy Miller fueled implosion.
Sunday at Red Bull Arena, they overwhelmed D.C. United for a full 90 minutes but once again failed to drive the final nail in the coffin.
Was it a disappointing result for the team? Absolutely. But there were major improvements that suggest Petke’s system is taking shape.
“When you don’t give good players like (Chris) Pontius and (Dwayne) De Rosario time on the ball, that’s the key to being very successful defensively,” midfielder Dax McCarty noted. “It was almost kind of reminiscent of how Barcelona tries to win the ball back. It was immediate pressure as soon as we turn the ball over. It’s a commitment to defend that we haven’t seen much in the past.”
“Overall, no more than I can say then I am proud of the team,” fellow midfielder Tim Cahill said. “I’m proud of what Mike (Petke) is trying to do. This is going to develop over the season and I hope personally that people can see the progression over time.”
They already are. Though the result wasn’t exactly what New York wanted it to be, there were many positives to take from the match. “Obviously I’m not happy with the result,” Petke said, “but it’s one of those moments that this coaching staff came back in and said ‘Alright, forget about the result for one second and tell me if you liked what you saw’ and we liked what we saw.”
A mutual agreement to allow the struggling Roy Miller to travel to Costa Rica early and join his national team allowed Petke the freedom to tinker with his lineup. Markus Holgersson, who has been a standout defender during training the past few weeks, retook his starting position alongside Olave. Career left back Heath Pearce was once again thrust to the wing, book-ending the back-line with Brandon Barklage.
“Listen, I’ve said it many times: in a perfect world I’d want consistency,” Petke said. “The same guys playing every week. But I’m not going to sacrifice for something like consistency early in the season if I don’t like what I see. I’m willing to make changes.”
It seems like the rookie head coach may have stumbled onto an answer. His new foursome controlled the rhythm of the play, did well to disrupt DC and held their rivals to four shots on goal.
“We played really tight,” Holgersson noted. “We set our high press on them, and they only had really two chances. We did a really good job defensively…Communication was perfect. We helped each other. We know (Olave) is really strong…I tried to pick up the pieces and then if I go, he helped me, so it was good. And it’s good to play with Heath and Brandon also. They are smart players who read the game. It was a good effort back there.
“Of course it’s frustrating, we had really great chances. It was 90 minutes and you see we’re going and going…Next time, maybe we get five goals, so hope for that.”
With Juninho unavailable and an untested backline in hand, Petke played it safe and trotted New York out in a 4-4-2. Newcomers Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele enjoyed inspired performances, playing a major part in widening the field and creating chances for their forwards. In Steele’s case, his runs made Miller’s trademark deliveries a distant memory.
Once New York noticed they had full control of the play, they reverted back to Petke’s 4-2-3-1 and continued the onslaught. “They pretty much switched it to more of a 4-3-3 on their own,” the coach noted. “In a perfect world, I would like a very attacking style. Whatever you want to call it: 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 whatever you want to call it. I enjoy a more attacking type of soccer. I think they sniffed it out that we had them on the ropes and they started stepping up individually and organizing things.”
“We said we wanted to be a football team that plays football, can mix it up, play long, win our challenges,” Cahill said. “They’re a good team but I really think we’re growing with training, what we are trying to do. Defense has tightened up, midfield is playing well, we’re adapting at different positions.”
Olave echoed that sentiment. “In training, we prepared a lot to see who would be playing,” he noted. “What you see in training is now reflecting on the field.”
“It takes time for us to grow, and work together, find our positions, to get this rhythm, and the rhythm does feel good,” Cahill said. “We have to be positive about everything we do in training, what Mike’s trying to drill, Robin [Fraser], our set plays, our defending, playing the balls long, playing short, making them guess what we’re going to do. Sometimes we’ve been really predictable and I think today the predictableness was gone and we’ve got options.”