This article first appeared in Football.com
Mike Petke cut a dejected and red-eyed figure as he walked to the podium for his post-match press conference. His voice betraying his disappointment at dropping yet another two points in the Red Bulls season opener. However, unlike the first two games of the season, Petke’s mood didn’t stem from yet another underwhelming performance by his team, but an inability to convert dominance into the first win of the season.
Only a few hours earlier, Petke’s disposition was a lot different. The Red Bulls coach was an animated character on the sidelines as his team took on Eastern Conference rivals, DC United, constantly remonstrating to match officials, and imparting frustrated tactical observations to his bench. Having only collected a mere point from an exhausting west coast road trip, Petke was very much a man under pressure, and the Red Bulls home opening theatrics probably did little to alleviate his anxiety.
Similarly to the loss in San Jose, New York lined-up in a 4-4-2, with the only changes being made at the back. Roy Miller, who according to Pekte had a, “unfortunate game” against the Quakes, was given permission to leave early on international break, in order to clear his head, and distance himself from a fan base that is eager to find a scapegoat for the early season woes. Markus Holgersson took the Costa Rican’s spot in the XI, pushing Heath Pearce to the left, a position the American is familiar with.
New York’s small changes paid dividends right from the start. Helgerson and Jamison Olave, appeared comfortable with each other, with the Swede being responsible for marking Lionard Pajoy, while the Colombian kept an eye on Dwayne De Rosario. Their ability to communicate effectively, as well as their positioning, gave Dax McCarty and Tim Cahill more freedom to push the ball up the field, and quickly spread it to the wings, which were patrolled by Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele. Both wingers looked far more comfortable in their roles than in the previous match, spending more time on their offensive third, and providing many of the crosses that would turn out to be the key to New York’s dominance.
With effective wing-play, Thierry Henry and Fabian Espindola found more room to maneuver in between DC’s center-backs. Their tendencies to float to the wings also enabled Cahill to constantly crash into the box. Apart from Espindola, it was Cahill who regularly found himself the recipient of most of New York’s open play crosses (eighteen, to be exact), with one shot forcing Hamid into the save of the game, and prompting the Australian to later admit that the draw was his responsibility since he “didn’t put the ball in the back of the net.”
The Red Bulls dominated the game from beginning to end; still, it was in the second half that they played their best soccer. The home team virtually allowed DC United no time to breathe by repeatedly bombarding the penalty box with crosses, but was incapable of scoring, thanks to simple wastefulness, DC’s dogged defending, and Espindola’s penchant for hitting the cross bar. The last twenty minutes even saw Petke make a tactical change, introducing Juninho into the game, and switching to a 4-3-3 formation, in order for Cahill to join Henry and Espindola, and apply more pressure, up-front.
In the end, DC’s defense proved impenetrable, leaving New York frustrated. Nevertheless, while points were dropped, the game showed signs of what the Red Bulls cab play like when they’re able to string passes, and build a rhythm. Additionally, Saturday’s performance revealed that Petke is learning from his mistakes. Sitting back and absorbing pressure obviously didn’t work against Portland and San Jose; thus, the philosophy from now on is seemingly to attack for ninety minutes. After all, the best defense is offense.
Player Ratings (1-10)
Robles (6): Seldom called upon, Robles never had to exert himself. The change to the back line also appeared not to faze the Red Bulls keeper.
Barklage (7): With another sound performance, it seems as though the right-back spot is his to lose. His constant forays into the attack prevented Chris Pontius from threatening down the left, and his deflected header could have been the difference maker in the game.
Olave (8): Three games in and the Colombian is already the undisputed leader of the defense. His positioning throughout the game was spotless, especially when reading potential DC counter-attacks, and his partnership with Holgersson will likely be a lasting one, barring any injuries.
Holgersson (7): A very good return to the starting XI. Mostly responsible for shadowing Pajoy, the big Swede never allowed the Colombia striker to move comfortably. His ability to build from the back still needs to improve.
Pearce (6): It was a shaky start for the center-back turned left-back. Clearly more comfortable in the middle of the defense, but his contributions to the offense were efficient, and his understanding with Steele, decent.
Cahill (7): By far his best performance of the season, so far. Always looking to spread the ball wide, manly to Thierry Henry. His runs into the box were a nightmare for DC’s back four, but his scoring touch failed him time and again.
McCarty (8): The feisty midfielder continues his good form. Responsible for building play from the back, McCarty always looked for the ball, and provided a gritty presence in front of Olave and Helgersson. Unlike in the previous games, McCarty was also more involved on the offensive end.
Alexander (7): Like Barklage, the right side of midfield is his to lose. Always involved in the team’s offensive movements, Alexander was much more comfortable with the ball and always attempted to push the ball forward, linking up often with Henry.
Steele (7): Provide most of the crosses from the left side, namely the one that found a wide-open Cahill. Petke’s decision to pull him out twenty minutes from time was a strange one, given Steele’s constant offensive involvement.
Henry (7): Closer to last season’s Henry, but still not at his best. The midfield’s ability to feed him the ball prevented Henry from drifting too far back, and his freedom to roam up-front caused Brandon McDonald to be out of position often. Took ten shots in the game – a Red Bull record.
Espindola (7): More dangerous when he drifts wide, where he played for RSL, than in the middle. Espindola saw a header and a left-footed shot hit the cross bar. The Argentine is still getting used to his new role, and as a result will fade in and out of the game.
Juninho (5): Didn’t have much time to really influence the game, but got involved right away with quick passing and a couple of crunching tackles.