A closer look at the struggling Red Bulls, and a potential cause of their woes

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Photo by Mike Lawrence/ISIphotos.com

By FRANCO PANIZO

The New York Red Bulls came off their World Cup break not that long ago, yet much of the talk surrounding the club last week was about how fatigued some of the players felt during a challenging but not uncommon three-games-in-eight-days stretch.

The burning question is why?

Several reasons could be pointed to as to why many of the Red Bulls felt so tired last week despite having recently enjoyed almost a two-week break from league play at the end of June. One that seems to hold some weight is that nine players started in each of New York’s matches against the Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union and San Jose Earthquakes, and another is that the Red Bulls are a veteran-laden team with several of its most important players being close to or on the wrong side of 30.

Those two explanations seem reasonable enough to explain why New York were running out of gas, but they could be part of a bigger issue in terms of a lack of player rotation in the club’s starting lineup and might explain why both Luis Robles and Eric Alexander confessed that teammates were quite fatigued over the course of the eight days.

A close look at the numbers just past the mid-way point of the season shows that Thierry Henry, 36, has started 17 of the Red Bulls’ 20 league games, sitting out only when games are played on turf. Jamison Olave, 33, has also playee in the same amount of matches. Red-hot forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, 29, has started 16. Lloyd Sam, also 29, has been in the lineup for every game this season.

Even younger regulars like the 26-year-old Alexander and 27-year-old Dax McCarty have also been used with much regularity, with the former starting 18 matches and the latter 15 – and McCarty’s number would likely be higher if not for a knee injury suffered just before the World Cup break.

The point is that there has not been much of a rotation of players in the lineup that head coach Mike Petke has deployed on a weekly basis. While that is understandable given the New York market’s extreme thirst for fielding a winning team, Petke’s over-reliance on his veterans and not his youngsters might be hurting the club more than helping it.

Granted, some of New York’s reserves have not performed when called upon: Right back Richard Eckersley’s play was downright dour at the start of the season and he isn’t even dressing these days, center back Armando has seen some solid play overshadowed by his physicality and multiple league suspensions, and utility man Bobby Convey has not made much of an impact as a starter or off the bench.

The Red Bulls’ bench might not be the most well-constructed one in the league, but the point remains that the club has struggled on its way to holding a very mediocre record of 5-6-9. What makes things more concerning is that multiple New York starters were running on tired legs even in the opening matches of last week’s busy stretch, with one unspecified player telling Robles in the first halves of two games that he felt he had already played 90 minutes.

It was a bit puzzling to many observers that Petke made so few changes to the lineup that faced the Earthquakes at home three days after suffering a 3-1 road loss to Union. No, PPL Park is not all that far from Red Bull Arena, but Petke had admitted following the defeat to Philadelphia that he noticed some of his players were a bit winded during pre-game warm-ups.

That they felt that way during a kind three-games-in-eight-days stretch – they opened up at home, traveled by bus approximately two hours away to face their nearest rival and then returned to Red Bull Arena – is concerning. It might be a development that forces Petke to start turning to his lesser-used players a bit more during the second half of the season, which includes CONCACAF Champions League group games for New York.

No, Petke does not need to make wholesale changes and field inexperienced players like Ruben Bover, Marius Obekop or rookie Eric Stevenson. But what the second-year head coach could do is turn to the likes of Kosuke Kimura (nine starts in 11 appearances), Connor Lade (zero starts in five appearances) and Andre Akpan (zero starts in five appearances) a bit more in order to help keep the team fresh as the stretch run and playoffs approach.

If he doesn’t, the Red Bulls better hope their veteran players have enough left in the tank to continue carrying the load all the way through to the postseason.

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27 Responses to A closer look at the struggling Red Bulls, and a potential cause of their woes

  1. beto says:

    Wow thats great news! Can’t wait to see them crap out in the group stage of the Champions League

  2. chris says:

    They’re too old. They never take the time to build a team.

  3. slowleftarm says:

    Petke promised some changes in the backline after Philly but the only change he made to the entire lineup was to bench Miazga in favor of Sekagya. This is an older team and I was surprised not to see more rotation. The problem is the backup players are terrible – Kimura, Eckersley, Lade. These guys don’t even belong in MLS. It’s time for an overhaul with this team. With Henry’s contract expiring, next year is a good opportunity to bring in a couple of new DPs and build around them. Playing Cahill as a midfielder isn’t really the best of use of him. He can move up front and maybe they can sign a midfield DP.

    That said, there’s no reason to give up on this season yet. The east is mediocre and a playoff spot is certainly possible. Then, it’s just a matter of getting hot at the right time.

    • Brain Guy says:

      Does this suggest the need to move away from Petke’s favored 4-4-2? Or even switch Henry (to MF or withdrawn striker) and Cahill (to striker)? I know it pulls your best striker away from goal, but Henry already spends so much time collecting the ball in the midfield that it might be worth considering if it means Cahill gets more chances in the penalty area.

  4. Clover362 says:

    Depth is just as important to a successful soccer club as any player’s individual talent.

    If the salary cap does inded expand during the next CBA most MLS teams should be able to aford to have 18-23 pleasers that truly have the talent to fight for first team minutes. As it is right now all but a handful of teams (who happens to be the consistently most successful) suffer a huge drop in quality after there starting 11.

    • Allegre says:

      Clover – you are right on target.

    • Quit Whining About Soccer in the US says:

      Agree Clover.

      But it is crazy, look at guys that don’t cost much that are making those handful of teams deep.

      The Sounders are the deepest team out there.
      Nagle for example…passed on by Montreal, who is last in the league ? Makes no sense. He can play good minutes for Seattle, the best team in the league, but can’t make Montreal better ?

      You can’t convince me that NY can’t use him. The salary cap will go up. I don’t think it will help….at all.

      One example, but the other teams need to make better decisions. Period.

  5. Brain Guy says:

    A related issue is petke’s reluctance to use his substitutions in a timely manner.

    It is also worth noting that RBNY had to play three games in eight days to make room for . . . a meaningless in-season friendly this weekend. And then three of their best players will go to the All-Star game on August 6, which is stuck between real MLS games they will have to play on August 2 and August 10.

    Petke’s not doing a good job of adapting to a tough situation, but that situation was created in large part by league/club leadership that is willing to compromise the quality of league competition with exhibition matches that needlesly congest the schedule.

    I can’t wait to see the RBNY lineup against Arsenal, so I can see how it stacks up against the lineup they trotted out against the Cosmos in the USOC. It will say a lot about the club’s management and their priorities.

  6. Yevgeniy says:

    As a huge RBNY fan, I agree with this. It’s not just the starts. It’s also the fact that once Henry and Cahill start, they are virtually never taken out (especially Henry) or if they are, it’s fr 2-5 minutes at the end. Lade, Akpan, Bover only get garbage minutes. If they were playing for 25-30 minutes, that would give them more game time and also shave off the milage off of the legs of the veterans to keep them in better shape for play-offs.

    That being said, I honestly felt that the team has played pretty well overall in this 3-game stretch and 1-1-1 is a bit unfortunate. They deserved to draw in Philly and should have / could have put away San Jose in 2nd half

    • slowleftarm says:

      I haven’t seen anything from Lade, Akpan or Bover that merits more than garbage minutes. This team is seriously lacking in depth and I think that’s why Petke doesn’t use too many subs.

      They still should have won the SJ game. They had several good chances to make it 2-0 before they conceded the equalizer.

      • georkt says:

        You haven’t seen anything from Lade, Akpan or Bover because they haven’t played. If a player gets 2 minutes a game you’re not going to get much out of them. The San Jose game was a perfect example of the season and you are correct in stating we should have put them away with another goal but it just isn’t happening this year. I think this is a real learning period for Petke this year. This article makes sense.

        • whoop-whoop says:

          Lot of merit to this. Players become reliable by being relied upon. You need to start out early with a philosophy of using a lot of bodies, perhaps dealing with errors early in the season in order to get everyone up and running. Thew flip side is what you see going on with RBs. Over reliance on a short roster is tempting, but short sighted- you run your team into the ground and end up having to throw unprepared out of form players into the fray out of desperation rather than design due to fatigue/injuries etc. All that said, it really is asking an awful lot for MLS managers to put together any kind of quality depth under the current constraints. If they want to have any hope at all of competing in CL, showing well in midseason exhibitions, they’re going to have to loosen the purse strings. I’ll add that LA has certainly helped itself in this regard by having a reserve side allowing its manager/players to have access to playing time in competitive matches for more players.

        • slowleftarm says:

          We have seen some of Akpan and Bover, and I haven’t been impressed, but maybe on those two you have a point. Lade saw lots of playing time in 2012 and was terrible. I have no idea why he is even still on the team.

  7. Nate Dollars says:

    “The burning question is why?”

    CAUSE THEY SUCK HAHAHAHA

    • Nate Dollars says:

      now that i got that out of my system, it is a little surprising. i didn’t think rbny’s bench was any worse than that of most mls teams.

      and i’m puzzled about connor lade’s absence: some commenters’ claims that he should be capped by klinsmann were hilarious, but i thought he was pretty good in league play when i’ve seen him (not this season). has he been injured, or just out of form for whatever reason?

  8. Adam M. says:

    This team is misplaced parts. First, Petke insists on using Dax McCarty in a holding role even when the Red Bulls need goals. Dax has a good enough engine, but he is hardly a destroyer and offers nothing going forward. He should be a second half sub when they need to hold a lead, not a 90 minute starter. Playing him 90 minutes subtracts more than it adds. Second, their best striker, Henry, isn’t playing striker because they have no creativity the middle of the field unless he drops back, which is great until he gets tired from the extra running. And Cahill, whose head is a serious weapon (as is his general nose for goal in the area), is rarely in the area except on set pieces. So this is a team with three very solid in the box forwards (Henry, Cahill and BWP), but they are only playing one in that position. They desperately need a creative central mid to open up the game, but then again, that’s been the flaw with this team for years now since Dane Richards was barreling down the wing like Lloyd Sam does now. Thwart that, and you’ve gone a long way to enuring that you can take advangage of the the inevitable defense miscuses enough times to get a result. Thus, frustrating ties like the Quakes game when the Red Bulls were clearly outclassing them.

    • slowleftarm says:

      This team scores plenty of goals. Only Seattle has scored more this season. However, only two teams have conceded more. Defensively, this team is a disaster and the guys they have back there just aren’t good enough. And the midfield is part of that too. Personally, I would love a center back DP signing if there’s a guy that makes sense. The blue team is paying $8m a year for Lampard, imagine how good a CB you could get for that money, or even half that much.

      • beachbum says:

        you guys are all making sense to me, Franco too (good article). Seems to me when I watch them play that the whole team does not defend as a unit, some don’t really defend at all, and you pay for that at all levels of soccer these days seems to me

        • whoop-whoop says:

          Yeah… I don’t watch a ton of RBs, but the search for a solid, consistent backline seems to be a running theme for years now. Defending as a whole team is the answer to that, but back to the theme of the article- that is also the first thing to go with tired legs and will make even a very good backline appear suspect.

  9. cformusic says:

    if RBNY can strike lightning in a bottle and find a partner for olave and RB they’d be right in position to make a playoff run..not the most balanced side..bunch of 10s/false 9s (henry, cahill, peguy) not enough pure wingers who are starting quality other than sam..but they have enough front line talent to make a run if they figure out olaves partner and RB

  10. Seth says:

    I don’t buy it. We recently started 3 rookies in the back line…

  11. Jacknut says:

    The sweet tears of sadness coming from Red Bull fans are like whisky on a summer night.

  12. Gary Page says:

    While I don’t follow them closely, what struck me was how they gave up some decent players (like Barkladge) during the off season and took in very few in return. In short, they didn’t improve their depth or bench at all and maybe got worse. If you are standing still, you are really falling behind. The Red Bulls need to get more quality players, it’s that simple. Perhaps it is the salary cap that is the problem, but they haven’t done a very good job, it seems to me, in enhancing their roster.

  13. Aguinaga says:

    “No, Petke does not need to make wholesale changes and field inexperienced players like Ruben Bover, Marius Obekop or rookie Eric Stevenson.”

    How will they ever be experienced then??

  14. Shawn says:

    Way too much money is locked up in Cahill who really serves no purpose on the team , especially when he’s pushed back into the midfield. Until they move on from him and lock up a better DP and a stronger overall roster, they’re doomed for mediocrity.

  15. Dr. Truth says:

    The biggest issue with this team is that none of the players are openly gay.