Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
HANOVER, N.J. – Talk to any number of New York Red Bulls fans about their team’s success this season and the names you will hear come up more often than not are Mike Petke, Tim Cahill, Thierry Henry, Jamison Olave and Luis Robles.
One person who likely won’t be mentioned, though he probably should, is Markus Holgersson.
Currently in his second season in MLS, Holgersson is quietly enjoying a very strong year at center back for New York by proving to be a formidable partner to Jamison Olave. Not only has the Swedish veteran been a main ingredient in a Red Bulls season that currently has the club sitting in first place in the overall MLS standings (due to the Most Wins tiebreaker) with just two weeks remaining, but he has continued to win over the same fans that made him the butt of many jokes in 2012 and the coach that was not all that convinced at the start of this year.
“I think he’s come a long way from preseason,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke of Holgersson. “He improved a lot of his game, he’s adapted to what we want. Markus has played if not almost every game, I think he played every game so far, so he’s obviously doing something right. Him and Olave, when they’re on and when their partnership is in cohesion, it’s very tough to break them down, so I’m happy with Markus this year.”
It is easy to forget that Holgersson began the campaign on the outside looking in after being edged out for a starting role by Heath Pearce in preseason, but the lanky central defender made his way back into the lineup after just two games and has never looked back.
Holgersson has started in each of New York’s last 30 matches and gone the distance in all but one of them, missing just 14 minutes in last month’s win over Houston because of a knock he sustained late. Those impressive numbers may fly under the radar due to Holgersson’s workmanlike style of play and his big-name teammates, but they still speak volumes to his dependability and consistency.
“I started slow. I didn’t play the first two games this season and last year I started slow, too, and now I’m being better and better,” Holgersson told SBI. “I think it helps that we’re coming better together as a team and that’s helping so much for us at the back. It was the same last year.”
Having ended last year on a strong note, Holgersson is looking to do the same this season as New York prepares to make a serious push for the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. But improvements can still be made on his part, especially when it comes to the more physical side of the game.
“I think he still has to work a bit on some of the head ball battles with a big opposing forward,” said Petke, who asked Holgersson to show more aggressiveness in his game in preseason. “But overall, yes, he has stepped up his physical game and that’s something that I wanted from him and I think he’s taken that to heart and done it.”
Holgersson has indeed improved in that regard. He is feistier with his defending, not afraid to try and use his body to make a challenge, and you can see him barking at referees more often than you could in 2013. For Holgersson, however, the credit for that edge and his success goes to his teammates and coach.
“It’s much easier to do it when you have Olave on your side or Ibrahim (Sekagya), because they are already more aggressive than I am,” said Holgersson. “We try to be tight, we try to help each other and when you have the confidence that we always know the other one is helping and cover your back, then it’s easy for me to take a step forward and be aggressive.
“That’s what I think we didn’t have last year because I have (Rafa) Marquez or I have another central defender, we were turning around so much. But this year, we play together much, much more and that has helped me to play my own game and play like Mike wants me to play.”