This article first appeared in Football.com
In late March, after the Red Bulls had just recorded their first win of the season by beating the Philadelphia Union, Tim Cahill sauntered into the Red Bulls locker room. Realizing that he was only player in the room, the Australian bemusedly looked over at the awaiting press, and muttered, “I guess I’ll take one for the team.”
Only two weeks earlier, Cahill had been standing in the same position, taking responsibility for the dropped points in the season’s home opener against I-95 rivals, DC United. With no other Red Bull in sight, Cahill was taking one for the team, even though he had to rush to make a flight to Australia where he was to report for international duty.
“Taking one for the team” has been a little bit of a theme for New York’s second most famous player, especially on the field.
Since the beginning of the season, Cahill has served as somewhat of a utility man, having already put in shifts at forward, center-midfield, left-midfield, and left-back. This is hardly a new reality for the thirty-three year old. Although less frequently, Cahill also found himself playing in different positions at Everton, where he spent a large chunk of his playing career, and even found himself being among the fifty Ballon d’Or candidates in 2006.
With the Red Bulls, Cahill’s positional shifting has translated into inconsistent form, which has only fueled the criticism (much of it coming from ESPN’s Taylor Twellman) that his performances have done little to justify his designated player salary.
However, that criticism may finally have come to an end as the Red Bulls have found a rich vein of form, winning three games in a row, with two of them coming away from home.
Not surprisingly, the win streak has coincided with a consistent center-midfield role for Cahill.
Initially, it was Juninho’s two-game suspension that meant that Cahill would have to partner up in the midfield with Dax McCarty against the New England Revolution. The move paid dividends early, as the two combined to score the first goal of the game. Their partnership had already proven effective a month earlier against DC United, when the duo propelled the Red Bulls to a dominant display. Ultimately, though, that dominance failed to translate into goals, and Cahill ended up being attacked for not scoring a sitter.
Those goals materialized in the next two games.
Due to McCarty’s quadriceps injury, Eric Alexander partnered Cahill against Toronto FC, the next week. While the partnership left a lot to be desired, Alexander’s inclination to be more defensive allowed Cahill to make his late trademark runs into the box, which resulted in his two goals. First, with a neatly placed left-footed strike, and then with the kind of towering header that earned him the moniker, Tiny Tim.
Against Columbus on Saturday, Cahill had yet another teammate to forge a productive partnership with, asJuninho returned from suspension. Given the Brazilian’s difficulty at handling the pace of the MLS, Cahill dropped deeper than usual, where he disrupted much of the Crew’s offense. Still, it was Cahill who scored the winning goal when he leapt higher than everyone else to reach a rebounded shot from Jonny Steele.
McCarty’s injury combined with the fact that Mike Petke has begun to roll out a more consistent starting XI, makes it likely that Cahill will continue to be employed in the center of the park for the next few games. That’s definitely good news for Red Bulls fans. The only uncertainty revolves around Cahill’s partner.
The most likely candidate is Juninho. Petke continues to select him when available, despite the fact that he’s playing well below expectations. Alexander’s natural position is in the middle, but his performance in Toronto, as well as Lloyd Sam’s inability to win a starting spot, probably means that the he will remain on the right.
Peguy Luyindula could be another option. He did seem comfortable in the position when he replaced Juninho in Columbus; nevertheless, his inclusion would render Cahill the more defensive of the two, basically limiting the forward runs that make the Australian so dangerous.
Whatever Petke decides to do, it appears that Cahill has found a home in the Red Bulls starting line-up, and barring a catastrophe it’s safe to say that, once he returns, McCarty will be his partner for the long haul.