Friday, May 30, 2014

Is It Time to Start Rolling the Dice?

Should Petke Contemplate More Radical Changes?
So here we are - 14 games into the Red Bulls' 2014 MLS season. If the playoffs started today - and yes, I know they don't - RBNY would be on the outside looking in. They currently sit a disappointing sixth place in the East, but due to MLS' kooky schedule several teams behind them - notably Chicago and Toronto - have played far fewer matches. 

In Toronto's case the gap is an astounding five games. That's a potential 15 points that TFC could bank, thereby rocketing past the Red Bulls and into the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference. Even the Philadelphia Union, who are off to a horrific start, are a mere four points behind New York and level on games played. Montreal's disastrous season has them anchored to the basement, but then again they haven't played the Red Bulls, who give away points to bottom feeders like Easter candy - so there's hope for them yet.

Looking ahead, there aren't a lot of opportunities for RBNY to earn points in the short term. They will play just two league games between now and the end of World Cup group play, as MLS takes a two week break, with a US Open Cup match-up against the Cosmos sandwiched in between. But stop to consider the league opponents. First, New York play a resurgent New England Revolution team at Gillette Stadium, which has been a house of horrors for them over the years. Then Toronto FC comes to Harrison toward the end of the month. TFC will still be missing Michael Bradley, but the Red Bulls will likely be without Roy Miller and Tim Cahill, as they make their way back from Brazil.

By the time July rolls around, the Red Bulls could be well and truly behind the eight ball. So is it time for Mike Petke and company to start throwing the dice and shaking up a team that has been the very definition of turgid? This fan says yes. If New York is going to have any chance of making a second half of the season run into the playoffs they are going to need to be less predictable and put some of their underperforming players on notice. Despite a roster that boasts some of the league's best talent, New York is an easy team to game plan against. They always play some version of a 4-4-2. They play lots and lots of crosses. They like to play long balls over the top to Henry. But if you put pressure the distribution-challenged defense and midfield to create turnovers, and at the other end push players out wide - allowing the wingers play cross after cross to nobody in particular - you can beat them.

I am not privy to training sessions, and maybe the young guys just are not all they're cracked up to be, but I do find it hard to imagine that we don't have at least one central defender with pace and passing ability in the squad. Jamison Olave, having lost a step or two, has walked the line between defending and rugby tackling all season. Armando, when he isn't giving away penalties, is clattering into players and giving up easy free kick opportunities. Ibrahim Sekagya has all the pace and marking ability of a man carrying a piano on his back. So why not give young Matt Miazga a shot alongside Olave? Chris Duvall recently stepped in at right back and has done a creditable job. Petke should not be afraid to shake up the center of defense as well. Could Miazga be a bigger disaster than Armando? That's hard to imagine.

In midfield, it's clear that the Eric Alexander as central midfield distributor experiment has failed miserably. With Peguy Luyindula back in the lineup, and Jonny Steele continuing to struggle on the left side, Alexander should either be slotted in the starting XI on the left side in place of Steele or relegated to the bench. Ruben Bover is another option on either wing. He got the rare start in  Kansas City after acquitting himself well in the home loss to Portland, but was the first man  subbed off by Petke as the team struggled to create anything in the first 45 minutes. He may not be someone we want to pencil into the starting lineup immediately, but the Spaniard provides a good jolt of energy for a team that's lacking in movement and ideas.

For other young players in the squad - Obekop, Bustamante, Lade - now is the time for Petke to give them some meaningful minutes and start to integrate them into the club's long term plans. Henry is probably riding off to the sunset at the end of the season, along with a number of other seasoned players. The Red Bulls are going to have to rely more on youth in the coming years. They can either start preparing for that now, or throw them in at the deep end in 2015, when the league will be even more competitive.

As my good friend Brian recently said, this is shaping up to be "one of those years." So why not take a few risks now and use the rest of the season to see what some of the youngsters can do? Why not roll out something other than a "plug and play" 4-4-2? It's preferable to watching the likes of Bobby Convey and Richard Eckersley trudge through another match. The Red Bulls broke their trophy drought last season, and Petke has built up good will (some of which he has frittered away). I think fans would understand a bit of experimentation if it meant more success in the long term.

How do you feel as we roll into the summer months? Should RBNY stay the course and hope that warmer weather and more home matches will bring better results? Or is a shakeup in order? Let us know your thoughts.
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