When Mike Petke was named the New York Red Bulls head coach on Jan. 24, 2013, no one was sure what to expect.
Petke was undoubtedly an accomplished player – a three-time Major League Soccer All-Star and former US International defender – and he was solidly a Red Bulls fan favorite for his long career with the club. His 13-year career and his franchise-record 169 appearances for the club earned him kudos and equity amongst supporters. But there was no guarantee that the Bohemia, New York native would become a success in his first stint as coach.
The result was better than anyone ever could have hoped for. Petke guided the Red Bulls to arguably their best season in franchise history, overcoming early-season struggles and even internal strife. He delivered New York’s first significant trophy –the Supporters’ Shield, given to the team with the best regular-season record – and ended 18 long years of suffering for a club that yearned for glory. Under Petke’s watch, the Red Bulls played a blistering brand of counterattacking soccer and led the MLS with 54 goals.
Still, the season ended up being bittersweet. New York was unable to complete the double and was eliminated in the MLS Playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The ultimate goal, the MLS Cup, would have to wait for another year.
Is that 2014 going to be that year? Possibly, if the Red Bulls find the right answers to some questions heading into this season.
Can Thierry Henry Finish What He Started?
Here's what you can say about Thierry Henry’s time in New York so far: the 36-year-old has brought more notoriety and star power to the Red Bulls and his contributions on the field have been more than respectable.
But to make his legacy complete, Henry must achieve the final goal in his American journey.
“We won the Supporters’ Shield last year, and as we all know, in Europe, it would have been enough,” he said to MLSSoccer.com on Feb. 25. “But we’re not in Europe. You have to win the MLS Cup.”
If he continues to play like he has in his three previous full seasons, his team might be able to do it this year. Despite being in the twilight of his career, Henry remains one of MLS’s most creative and dynamic players. He was second on the team with 10 goals and led the Red Bulls in assists with nine last season.
Like another New York sports star before him, the Red Bulls’ captain is the straw that stirs the drink. He is New York’s top attacking threat and is still deadly when given a scoring chance. The Red Bulls’ MLS Cup hopes ride on the French legend being able to maintain his level of success for one more season.
Is Tim Cahill Going to be played as a Striker or Midfielder?
After a sluggish first half-season with the Red Bulls, Tim Cahill came on leaps and bounds in 2013.
The Australian international led New York with 11 goals, including some dramatic stoppage-time tallies that helped lift New York to the Supporters’ Shield title. He was arguably the Red Bulls’ most valuable player and was as inspirational as a leader in the locker room as he was on the pitch.
The former Everton man has always been a versatile player throughout his career. With his goalscoring prowess, he can be utilized as a forward – playing as a second striker behind Henry – or he can be played in the center of midfield. During preseason, Petke has experimented with Cahill and Henry as his strike partnership and chosen Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander as his two starting midfielders.
With Cahill expected to go to the World Cup with the Socceroos, Petke will no doubt want to try and conserve the 34-year-old’s legs. That could mean seeing Cahill playing up front and lessen the running Cahill would have to do on a game-by-game basis.
Who Will Partner Jamison Olave in Center Defense?
The Red Bulls were a dominant team when Jamison Olave was in the lineup last season – 17-6-6 in 2013 – and were lackluster without him (0-3-2). Olave earned himself a new contract in the offseason and the 32-year-old is Petke’s defensive linchpin. The burly Columbian will have new cohort in center defense after New York let go of Markus Holgersson, Olave’s preferred partner in 2013.
Ibrahim Sekagya, youngster Matt Miazga and new signing Armando are the contenders for the starting spot, with Armando partnering Olave early on in preseason games. All three players are virtually untested in the rigors of MLS play and Petke will hope that one of trio can take hold of a starting spot.
One thing is certain about center defense: the Red Bulls must have Olave available for most of their games. It can be argued that New York lost its semifinals matchup against the Houston Dynamo last season when he was sent off in the first leg. His physical brand of defending is highly thought of by Petke and, with a group of untested defenders behind him, Olave will need to be the rock in defense that Petke will rely upon.