Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
HARRISON, N.J. — Preparing for their match vs. Chivas USA last Friday, the New York Red Bulls squad was split into their first and second teams for some 11-v-11, game-situation drills. Four players were left out of the drill due to numbers.
One of them was Connor Lade.
Lade sat on a ball near midfield and locked his eyes on the drills, his hands pressed together over his mouth as he carefully watched every move that his teammates made on the field at Red Bull Arena. It was a moment that depicted how Lade – not too far removed from a strong rookie campaign in 2012 and a U.S. Men’s National Team call-up in 2013 – is currently on the outside looking in with regards to playing time.
“It’s really tough for anyone,” Lade told SBI last week of his current situation. “You want to be in that 18, you want to be in the starting 11, but it’s a grind. I know we have a really deep team this year and that makes it even tougher. First of all, it’s nice (to have that depth) but it hurts you at times, too.
“I think I’m really trying (since) the beginning the of year, the preseason, to really find a spot and kind of put my mark on it and show the coaching staff that I can bring some stuff to the table. Hopefully, I can consistently get in that 18 and hopefully break my way into the 11.”
The 24-year-old Lade faces an uphill battle to do so. New York is currently looking at him in more of a central midfield role – which already boasts Tim Cahill, Dax McCarty, Peguy Luyindula and others – than in the fullback spot where he enjoyed much of his professional success and earned Rookie of the Year consideration two seasons ago.
Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke said earlier this week that Lade is indeed still an option at fullback, but that the club thinks the versatile Homegrown Player is better suited to be deployed elsewhere in part because of his height.
Lade is officially listed at 5-foot-7, a generous listing for a player who is probably closer to 5-foot-5.
“With Connor, for all the bite that he has and all the work rate that he has, the one thing that’s tough for playing on the outside back that has happened before – even though he did have success before – is that far-post long balls and guys targeting that situation,” said Petke via a conference call. “Not only by the goal, but even 20-30 yards out when the ball is being switched and headers are being knocked down in front, things like that. We have Roy Miller at the left back, where he’s played, and we have another young guy in Ambroise Oyongo who could potentially be something for the future.
“It’s about knowing the qualities that Connor has: his work rate, his dedication, his quickness, and he’s gotten steadily better with the ball at his feet,” Petke said. “Whether that means he’s ever going to play in that (holding midfielder) position or not is yet to be seen. He’s impressed us over the last 2-3 weeks since we dabbled a little bit and wanted to look at different positions.”
Lade showed well in that spot when he played there as part of a five-man midfield in the reserve game that immediately followed the 1-1 draw with Chivas USA this past Sunday. He demonstrated defensive bite, good passing, his usual high motor, and also assisted on the second goal of the Red Bulls’ 3-0 win vs. USL Pro’s Dayton Dutch Lions.
Without hesitation, Petke mentioned Lade first earlier this week when asked who impressed in the reserve match and went on to rave about his performance. Still, Lade is admittedly adjusting to its differences and figuring out all of its nuances.
“It was my second game playing like a center defensive mid,” said Lade, who also captained the reserve team in the victory. “I like it. I like to get into tackles, so it’s nice getting in there. It’s a new spot, but I’m learning, and if that’s where they’re looking at me, I’m going to take advantage of it.”
An upbeat and healthy Lade made it clear he would play anywhere the Red Bulls could use him, but he also admitted that he has explored the possibility of going on loan given that he needs minutes to continue his development. Especially after battling repeated knee issues that helped to limit him to just five appearances in his second pro season last year.
By contrast, he started 22 times and played in 26 games playing as a left back and left midfielder in his rookie campaign.
Lade’s lack of playing time has led to questions about whether he might not be better served by going on loan and earning playing time elsewhere in order to keep improving as a player. Nothing is in the works on that front at the moment, but Lade wouldn’t rule out that option if it means earning regular playing time.
“There’s always options,” said Lade. “There’s been interest from (other teams) and things like that. It’s kind of hard because you want to feel it out and obviously I love playing here and family is here, everything is here, so it’s nice. But at the same time, you want to be playing. It’s something that I have explored and we’ll see what the future holds.”
For now, Lade will bide his time by continuing to push to earn the kind of playing time that has eluded him for so long. In fact, Lade has not played extensive first-team minutes for the Red Bulls since logging 53 minutes as a starter in a loss in Colorado.
Due to injury and coaching decisions, he has played just one minute since.
“I’m kind of seeing the best of both worlds,” said Lade. “First year, it was kind of surreal being in there and playing almost every game and I think last year with the injuries, it was a very frustrating year. Now this year, I’m still trying to work my way in, so I’m kind of seeing all the different kind of roads you can go and I think it overall might be a blessing kind of.
“It makes me appreciate that time even more and makes me even hungrier. If this is the road that you need to take to get to where you want to be then so be it.”