Saturday, July 6, 2013

Red Bulls Paying Price for Offseason Dithering

Is Petke in Over His Head?
When Hans Backe was relieved of his Red Bull head coaching duties on November 9, 2012 it signaled the end of an unsuccessful Nordic reign in Harrison and - most RBNY fans hoped - the beginning of a more positive style of football. With Thierry Henry playing out his final two years in MLS, the Red Bulls could hardly afford a wholesale rebuilding. If they were going to win their first ever major trophy they would have to strike while the iron was hot, and find a way to surround the Frenchman - probably the most skilled player the league has ever seen - with the missing ingredients to make a strong playoff run. Those missing ingredients included a new, experienced head coach, an attacking midfielder, solid wing players, a partner for Henry - whether Kenny Cooper or someone else - and defensive/goalkeeping reinforcements.

But Backe's replacement didn't come right away. In fact, it didn't arrive until after 2014 preseason preparations had already begun, and when the announcement did come it was managerial neophyte Mike Petke on the podium - a fan favorite (for good reason) but not exactly the first name that comes to mind when you think experience. Petke's 11th-hour appointment only came after a flirtation with former Swansea manager Paulo Sousa went belly up at the last minute under mysterious circumstances. But Petke's appointment wasn't the only offseason move that had people scratching their heads. Instead of keeping the productive Cooper, the Red Bulls let him go - ostensibly due to salary constraints - and signed the notoriously streaky Fabian Espindola. Peguy Luyindula, who had been a bench player at best at PSG in recent seasons, was also brought in to add some firepower up front, but his transfer wasn't sealed until mid-March, and when he did arrive he was woefully out of shape.

In midfield, Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards-shaped holes on the wings were plugged with journeymen Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele, serviceable bench players maybe, but not the kind of names that would grace the starting XI of most MLS teams on a regular basis. To provide a spark of creativity and a dose of set-piece danger in the middle, 38-year old Brazilian legend Juninho Pernambucano was also added.

But half way into the regular season, all of the Red Bulls' offseason reinforcements - with the possible exception of Jamison Olave - have been varying shades of disappointing. Juninho left for good this week, without having scored a single goal and without showing any signs of his heralded free kick prowess. On his way out the door, the Brazilian also managed to take a swipe at the managerial style of Petke, implying that the gaffer might be in over his head. As for Luyindula, his knack for getting himself in dangerous positions hasn't translated to goals. Instead he has become notorious for blowing easy chances. Maybe PSG knew something the Red Bulls didn't. Espindola scored last week against a Brad Davis-less Houston Dynamo, but was missing in action for weeks prior. 

In the midfield, Steele works hard and scored against Houston, but he's a minimal offensive threat at best, and for every goal there are five balls put into Row Z. Eric Alexander hasn't managed to do much on his starts either and is anonymous for large stretches of games. With no real danger being offered out wide, opponents have been free to swarm around Henry and Cahill, effectively neutralizing them. The Red Bulls total lack of ability to build out of the back hasn't helped either. In Colorado on Thursday both DPs were dropping deep to receive balls and start attacks, something we've seen too many times before and hardly an ideal scenario.

Where is Petke in all of this? It's hard to say. He was on the coaching staff when players such as Steele, Espindola and Alexander were added, and the front office presumably relied on his input. From a tactical standpoint we haven't yet seen him make a radical adjustment. His biggest move so far has been switching from the early season 4-3-3 to a more traditional 4-4-2, a decision that reportedly didn't sit well with the defense-averse Juninho. But it's not as if RBNY has become defensively impenetrable as a result of the switch. The team is still prone to major gaffes at the back, including two in Colorado. Markus Holgersson is still a black hole of possession. The Red Bulls let in three after going down a man in Philadelphia. They bombed out of the US Open Cup in calamitous performance in New England. To claim that Petke is blameless in all of this because he inherited a less than ideal squad is a stretch. If he didn't pull the trigger on all of the "talent" he currently has at his disposal, he was certainly consulted.

Still, fans and many observers seem inclined to give Petke the benefit of the doubt for now and are only too happy to explain away bad results. Backe would have been ripped for the US Open Cup loss, but most fans seemed to take the New England debacle in stride because they know how awful "Mikey" felt about it. Philadelphia? Well, Lloyd Sam got sent off. Ditto Olave against Vancouver. Colorado? There's the altitude and the fact that we suck on July 4. Is the patience laudable for a team that goes through managers like most people change underwear, or are supporters whistling in the graveyard?

Not too long ago it was easy to make the pro-Petke case. After a tough start, RBNY went on a long unbeaten run that ended at home against the Whitecaps. But now the rest of the pack has caught up in games played and the Red Bulls have dropped crucial league points, They are now firmly mediocre, ninth tenth in the table in the all-important category of points per game but still a deceptive second in the Eastern Conference. Sure, there have been some unfortunate injuries, red cards and international departures along the way, but you have to wonder if the powers that be in Austria are starting to have regrets about their offseason procrastination and subsequent choice of Petke. This is a club that can ill-afford another season of disappointment with NYCFC on the horizon. Hopefully they are also kicking themselves over the boneheaded decision to keep Digao and his salary in the roster, when they could have used those funds on extending Cooper. They must be wondering, too, what in the world they were thinking bringing in an aging free kick specialist to a summer league as tough and physical as MLS.

So here we sit, with a lot of regrets and question marks as we reach the midway point of the season. Petke is in the unenviable position of having to learn on the job with a squad composed of spare parts. RBNY is reportedly in negotiations with several players of dubious pedigree, such as Bradley Wright-Phillips (yes, another lesser brother), but are English Championship castoffs really going to provide the cure to what ails this team? It seems unlikely. If, as has been reported, the Red Bulls have decided against another designated player addition, Petke is going to have to find a way to get more juice out of his lemon of a squad, and it won't be getting any easier. RBNY has yet to travel to the fortresses of Houston, Kansas City and Seattle.

The Red Bulls had months and months to think about where they should go in the wake of the Solér/Backe regime and landed firmly in No Man's Land, victims of their own indecisiveness and questionable personnel decisions. Of course this is MLS, where it's possible for teams to squeeze into the playoffs and make a miraculous run. But would you put money on New York doing it this season based on recent evidence? Honestly? And is that even good enough for a club with RBNY's ambitions?
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