In his playing days before he became Red Bulls head coach, Mike Petke was a battle-hardened, no-nonsense center back, who played with his heart on his sleeve. A clean sheet was the priority for the rugged defender, by any means necessary.
It looks like he's transmitted those hard-working traits onto the team he now coaches.
On pace to surrender fewer goals than last season, Petke has made the Red Bulls into a defensively solid unit and has guided New York to lead in the MLS Supporters' Shield standings after the 1-0 victory over FC Dallas Sunday. Being stout defensively has been stressed by Petke ever since he was given the job as head coach and the results have shown during the Red Bulls' current four-game winning streak.
“It just feels like we're just maturing as a team,” Dax McCarty said after Sunday's match. “For the most part, we've always been a team that can create so many brilliant moments and then have so many boneheaded moments at the same time. I think we're kind of evening out a little bit. I think solidarity and making sure we're solid from front to back is the key for us to win the Supporters' Shield and making a run at MLS Cup.”
Every good defensive team starts with the players on the back line, and fortunately for the Red Bulls, it appears as if Petke has found the right formula. Since Aug. 31, New York has settled on Luis Robles in goal, Kosuke Kimura at right back, Markus Holgersson and Jamison Olave at center back and newcomer David Carney at left back. While all five players have played their roles brilliantly during the winning streak, Petke singled out special praise for Olave.
“[Olave's] defensive play this year has been amazing,” Petke said in his post-match press conference. “You know, if you want to teach a youth soccer player how to defend, if you have to defend a player one-v-one, you should show them [film of] Olave. And he's been immense with us.”
In turn, Petke's players have given credit to their boss for their defensive improvement and their upturn in form this season.
“There were some things that we needed to work out in the beginning and middle of the season,” Robles said. “Even at the beginning of the season, everyone was saying that we couldn't finish games. But if you look at the way we've played in their last 10 games, it's starting to show the fruits of our labor. We've been diligent and disciplined, working hard each and every week and now it's starting to come together.”
Defensive solidity sometimes comes at a price. It can be argued that the Red Bulls haven’t been as free flowing as in years past and haven’t been as intricate in their attack. Still, it’s hard to argue style points when New York is leading the MLS’s regular-season standings. All kudos must be given to the head coach, who has turned around the team from perennial underachievers to top-flight contenders in his first season at the helm. Petke is finally seeing the consistency he’s been longing for in his team.
“We’ve really redefined the way we wanted to defend as a team over the last four games,” he said. “It’s certainly not perfect, but every game you’ve seen a major step up, closing down space. To me, it’s been back to the basics with this team over the last month or so and we have to continue to hammer that away.”
GOING FOR THE SHIELD?
Petke has avoided all talk about the Red Bulls winning MLS’s Supporters' Shield this season, but with the Red Bulls alone in first, the discussion was unavoidable after New York’s triumph Sunday. Still, the coach wouldn’t say the words “Supporters' Shield” in his post-match presser.
“To say that I’m not concerned where we are is a bit of an exaggeration,” Petke said. “If we keep doing the things we can do and we want to do … our place [in the standings] is irrelevant.”
The Red Bulls players in the locker room were a little more open talking about the Supporters’ Shield race. Being in the top spot this late in the season has its benefits, according to McCarty.
“It feels great to not go into every game saying, ‘this is an absolute must win’,” he said. “We have that mindset because we want to win the Supporters’ Shield. We want to have the best chance to win MLS Cup. It feels good [to lead Supporters’ Shield race], but we haven’t accomplish anything yet.”
A LOOK AHEAD: SEATTLE SOUNDERS
Sunday’s match against the Seattle Sounders might be the Red Bulls’ toughest this season.
New York leads the race for the Supporters’ Shield race by one point over the Sounders, although Seattle has two games in hand on the Red Bulls. If the Red Bulls can manage to get out of Seattle with the three points, it would be a gigantic boost to their Shield chances and put them in the pole position.
But it won’t be easy.
Seattle is loaded with talent from the top on down. US Internationals Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey missed out on the Sounders’ 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy last Saturday with injuries, but both are expected to be healthy enough to be in the squad come Sunday. Obafemi Martins – a striker with experience at some of Europe’s biggest clubs – will supply the goals in case Johnson and Dempsey aren’t fit. If that isn’t enough, midfielder Lamar Neagle can get forward and score goals as well
Facing Seattle’s players is one thing; going into a cauldron of 43,000 rabid Sounders fans is another. Seattle is a formidable 10-1-3 at CenturyLink Field and a lot of its success can be attributed to the team’s tremendous fan support.
The Red Bulls will also be without Thierry Henry and Olave, as both veterans will avoid the unforgiving CenturyLink Field turf. Despite the tough road ahead, the Red Bulls say they’re going to be up for it.
“We’re not worried about Seattle,” Jonny Steele said. “We’re going to create chances anywhere we play. It’s a tough environment, a tough place to play. When you get to this level of [soccer], you want those challenges.”