Photo by ISIPhotos.com
BY DAVE MARTINEZ
New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke inherited a midfield rich in talent. Before he could even make a move to improve the roster, he already counted Designated Player Tim Cahill, 2012 hero Dax McCarty and veteran Brazilian playmaker Juninho as his immediate starters.
“All of them have the quality to be in there,” Petke stated earlier this year. Few can deny that claim.
Making those players fit into one cohesive unit, however, is another story.
“Of course with guys like Juninho back, and Tim, it’s always an interesting dilemma to have with three guys you want on the field, three guys that are largely central players,” Petke acknowledged.
Each player, in their own way, commands starting minutes. Cahill has produced for the team both on and off the field. McCarty continues to be New York’s most reliable two way central option on the team. Meanwhile, 38-year-old Juninho is being paid handsomely to replicate the deep lying, playmaking role that has made him famous, but injuries, suspensions and an overall adjustment to the league has slowed his progress to a crawl.
Due to injuries on the front line, Cahill has pushed forward during the season, allowing Juninho and McCarty to command the center. The problem comes when all three are wedged into the middle.
Foreseeing the issue, Petke’s initial 4-3-3 formation aimed to alleviate the problem by pushing the burden of the team’s width play on the forward lines. It quickly proved ineffective; the Red Bulls went 1-3-2 in their first six games under the system.
Since their loss at Chicago, Petke has tweaked his formation and gone back to a traditional 4-4-2. While yielding success, he still found himself juggling his talented trio. The glut in the center has often pushed Cahill into ineffective positions on the field in hopes to shoehorn all their available talent into a cohesive program.
While his flexibility in the middle is admirable, Cahill has shown just how strong he can be when given more room in the middle of the pitch to perform. Since their home loss against Kansas City, the Red Bulls have gone unbeaten in five (4-0-1). Due to injuries and suspensions, they have been unable to field all three players in the midfield at the same time over the course of those matches – and they have been the better for it.
Coincidence? Hardly. When all three players are in the middle, the Red Bulls sacrifice their wing play. Of the three, only Cahill has the knack to competently fill in different roles on the pitch. “Tim has proven more help this year specifically in that he is very versatile and can perform in an number of positions,” Petke admitted. While true, that has often forced the lifelong forward to adjust in several unnatural positions. Cahill’s deference to teammates only takes him further from the attack. During the aforementioned Sporting KC match, he started on the left flank but often fell back to defense to give Roy Miller the run of play. Not to be outdone, Heath Pearce also took to the attack from centerback, leaving Cahill to fill that gap.
In one match, Cahill featured in nearly all positions on the field other than right fullback, right midfield and goalkeeper.
While Juninho served his suspension and McCarty suffered his injury, Cahill manned a well-defined central unit focused on the teams strengths and fortified by disciplined play. Cahill’s ability to read the field put him in dangerous positions as a trailer on the offense which helped spark his long-lost goalscoring touch.
Asked prior to the Red Bulls’ road match against the Columbus Crew how the team can make all three midfielders fit into one system, Cahill minced no words.
“The program is not all of us can play every game,” he said. “When you look at the bigger picture, we are three games in a week coming up. Juni has been out a couple of weeks, Dax has had a few injuries – seems to work out fine for selection purposes.
“When all three of us are fit, it might be a bit of a coaching headache but a good one, one where we have to assess what team we play against and what method works better.”
During his Tuesday conference call, Petke echoed Cahill’s sentiments.
“Tim has proven more help this year specifically in that he is very versatile and can perform in an number of positions,” Petke acknowledged. “At the end of the day, it’s about getting the best players on the field; but it could also be about the rotation. That’s something that when Dax is fully fit, when Tim and Juninho are fully fit, we will figure that out and get the best lineup that we can. That is the end goal obviously.”
Revealing that McCarty will be available for selection, that time can come as early as this week for their nationally televised encounter against the LA Galaxy.
“We are different players,” Juninho said. “Though my English isn’t good, our understanding on the field is. It’s more about adapting to situations than seeing it as a limitation.
“Every player has their own characteristics,” he acknowledged. “You lose and gain things with each player. (McCarty) has some, I have others. Tim is also an excellent player. The team is not made of just eleven players; it’s a full roster. To win, you have to be able to rotate within the roster and hopefully we can continue to do well as we have the last couple of games.
“It’s going to be a hard one but we all train hard and look to find our own spaces in a team and whatever void we have to fill, will be done.”