By FRANCO PANIZO
HARRISON, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls midfield has a problem and it was a problem that was easily disguised in the early weeks of the MLS season, as the team played a series of opponents that made it easy to cover the issue.
The Red Bulls lack quality on the wings and the problem became glaringly obvious on Wednesday night as the Red Bulls suffered a disappointing 1-0 loss at home to Sporting Kansas City, a result that dropped New York to 2-4-2 on the season.
Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke has been deploying a pair of players better suited for central midfield roles, Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele, as wingers, and while the results of that experiment have been positive against some weaker opponents, Wednesday night provided some evidence that the team will need some new alternatives on the flanks if they are going to challenge the league’s better teams.
“Not tonight,” right back Brandon Barklage said after Wednesday’s loss when asked if he thought the Red Bulls were getting enough from the flanks. “The past few games it’s been okay, but it’s going to take a little bit of time with new partnerships on both sides. It’s going to take a little bit of time for us to gel. It was not gelling tonight.”
Granted, Alexander and Steele are serviceable players that will likely play parts in the Red Bulls’ success this year, and they both put in the type of defensive work that Petke values. But their inability to beat players on the dribble and create for their teammates from the flanks is making New York a narrow team that is easy to defend against.
The lack of width is indeed part of the reason why Sporting KC was mostly untroubled on Wednesday night, and why the Red Bulls have scored just twice at home and been shutout twice in three games at Red Bull Arena. Yes, Sporting KC are one of the best defensive teams in MLS but the Red Bulls have more than enough quality to create more from the run of play than they did on the night and in recent weeks.
“I don’t think today we did create anything,” Thierry Henry said after Wednesday’s defeat. “If you look at the only opportunity, clear one, we had was because [Matt] Besler misread the ball. If he doesn’t come for that ball, there’s no way I can beat him. He just misread it and I went 1-v-1 with the ‘keeper and I missed.
“Sometimes you’ve got to also be honest with yourself. I don’t think we did create enough to beat Kansas City today and at times I thought they were controlling the game.”
New York’s forwards often find themselves isolated up top, starved of service and needing to rely on set pieces for their best looks on goal. Wednesday’s miss aside, Henry still can finish with the best of them in the league and he showed that with his sublime winner over the Philadelphia Union last month – on a play where he got on the end of a cross from Peguy Luyindula. Henry is far less effective when he has to drop deep to try and receive the ball from his teammates.
What options do the Red Bulls have? One player who has yet to see substantial minutes this season is English winger Lloyd Sam, who impressed last season as a threat on the right flank. He has been in the doghouse in the early going, possibly due to what sources tell SBI was a falling out with Petke during the pre-season.
Sam has the speed that can help stretch defenses and is dynamic enough on the ball to add another dimension to the Red Bulls’ stale attack. His defending and work rate may not be up to the standard that Petke wants and the club may lose a bit in those regards by putting him in. But when the attack is struggling to create chances like it is now, Petke may have no other choice but to give Sam some minutes.
Whether it is Sam or youngsters Ruben Bover or Marius Obekop, the Red Bulls need some natural wingers to step forward and give the team some width, because if viable flank options don’t emerge soon the Red Bulls could continue to struggle against better teams. Then, they may have no choice but to address the weakness in the summer transfer window.