By FRANCO PANIZO
The New York Red Bulls are near the midway point of their preseason preparations, which means the battle for starting spots is really beginning to heat up.
Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke started what many could see as the club’s opening-day lineup in a friendly vs. the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday, and the result was a 2-1 victory at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. that demonstrated the chemistry New York’s first-team regulars have with one another. The starters moved the ball quickly and sharply and created many chances en route to scoring both goals.
As impressive as the first unit was, there are few positions that are already locked up ahead of the 2014 campaign. Several reserves are still attempting to make a case to Petke as to why they deserve to start for the defending Supporters’ Shield winners when they get their new season underway on March 8, which should make for plenty of intriguing battles during the second half of preseason.
Here’s a look at some of the Red Bulls’ current positional battles:
BOBBY CONVEY vs. ROY MILLER
The fight for left back is officially underway.
The Red Bulls brought in Convey this offseason to bolster their depth at left midfield and left back, and the veteran is beginning to make a case for a starting spot at the latter position. Convey looked good getting forward vs. the Union, defended competently and combined well with his new teammates.
Still, Miller is currently New York’s longest-tenured player and the chemistry the Costa Rican has with the rest of the back line is an asset that should play in his favor as the meaningful games draw near.
LLOYD SAM vs. ERIC ALEXANDER
Alexander was the de facto starting right midfielder for much of 2013, but Sam took some minutes away from him towards the latter part of the season.
That competition will apparently carry over into this season, as both attempt to claim a starting role on a team with plenty of attacking talent. Sam was stellar against Philadelphia and provides the type of width that Alexander cannot replicate, but Alexander is better defensively and has made strides at a position that is not his natural one.
KOSUKE KIMURA vs. RICHARD ECKERSLEY
Kimura may currently have the inside track at right back, but that’s mostly because Eckerlsey was only recently able to join the Red Bulls.
A delay in the receipt of Eckersley’s visa caused him to miss much of the first half of New York’s preseason preparations, but Petke has been impressed with the veteran in the short time he has been with the club. Kimura may have gotten the nod on Wednesday, but did not necessarily do enough to put a clamp on a starting spot.
This could be one positional battle that goes down to the wire.
ARMANDO vs. IBRAHIM SEKAGYA
When the Red Bulls signed Spanish centerback Armando this offseason, many observers looked at the move as one strictly for depth purposes. It might end up being one that landed a starter.
Armando has made an impression in camp and started over Ibrahim Sekagya, who was kept over Markus Holgersson this offseason, on Wednesday. Armando showed composure on the ball and good distribution out of the back, but he was a bit too casual on a couple of occasions.
Sekagya might not be as technically-gifted as Armando, but he is still a physical defender who has already proven to be a solid complement to defensive anchor Jamison Olave. What may be equally as important is that Sekagya has experience playing in MLS whereas Armando is still assimilating to his new teammates, the club’s style of play, and MLS.
RYAN MEARA vs. LUIS ROBLES
It’s tough to imagine Robles being dethroned given how well he played down the stretch last year. The Red Bulls, however, are high on Meara and Petke said several times late last year that the youngster was not seeing the field only because he was playing behind one of the hottest goalkeepers in the league at the time.
Petke is surely keeping an open mind as to who his No. 1 will be for the season opener, but the onus is on Meara to show the type of form he was in during his impressive rookie season in 2012.
Interestingly enough, though, Meara did not play at all against the Union. Instead, it was youngster Santiago Castano who replaced Robles midway through the second half.
PEGUY LUYINDULA vs. BRADLEY WRIGHT-PHILLIPS
Luyindula and Wright-Phillips are not in an open competition at the same position, but what they are essentially fighting for is the final spot in the Red Bulls’ starting lineup.
Much like at the tail end of the 2013 campaign, Luyindula was once again deployed at center midfield on Wednesday. That allowed Tim Cahill to play more advanced in a forward role next to Thierry Henry, and the combination showed well as New York moved the ball quickly and sharply.
Wright-Phillips, meanwhile, showed off his speed and aggressiveness in the second half. If the Englishman can continue to do that for a Red Bulls side that lacks some pace in the attack, Petke will need to decide whether it is better to insert Wright-Phillips up top as a starter and drop Cahill back into Luyindula’s spot in midfielder or leave Luyindula at center midfield and have Wright-Phillips be a primary option off the bench with Cahill starting as a forward.
What do you think of these positional battles? Who would you like to see start for the Red Bulls?
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