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As Red Bulls ride hot streak, central midfield logjam looms

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New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke inherited a midfield rich in talent. Before he could even make a move to improve the roster, he already counted Designated Player Tim Cahill, 2012 hero Dax McCarty and veteran Brazilian playmaker Juninho as his immediate starters.

“All of them have the quality to be in there,” Petke stated earlier this year. Few can deny that claim.

Making those players fit into one cohesive unit, however, is another story.

“Of course with guys like Juninho back, and Tim, it’s always an interesting dilemma to have with three guys you want on the field, three guys that are largely central players,” Petke acknowledged.

Each player, in their own way, commands starting minutes. Cahill has produced for the team both on and off the field. McCarty continues to be New York’s most reliable two way central option on the team. Meanwhile, 38-year-old Juninho is being paid handsomely to replicate the deep lying, playmaking role that has made him famous, but injuries, suspensions and an overall adjustment to the league has slowed his progress to a crawl.

Due to injuries on the front line, Cahill has pushed forward during the season, allowing Juninho and McCarty to command the center. The problem comes when all three are wedged into the middle.

Foreseeing the issue, Petke’s initial 4-3-3 formation aimed to alleviate the problem by pushing the burden of the team’s width play on the forward lines. It quickly proved ineffective; the Red Bulls went 1-3-2 in their first six games under the system.

Since their loss at Chicago, Petke has tweaked his formation and gone back to a traditional 4-4-2. While yielding success, he still found himself juggling his talented trio. The glut in the center has often pushed Cahill into ineffective positions on the field in hopes to shoehorn all their available talent into a cohesive program.

While his flexibility in the middle is admirable, Cahill has shown just how strong he can be when given more room in the middle of the pitch to perform. Since their home loss against Kansas City, the Red Bulls have gone unbeaten in five (4-0-1). Due to injuries and suspensions, they have been unable to field all three players in the midfield at the same time over the course of those matches – and they have been the better for it.

Coincidence? Hardly. When all three players are in the middle, the Red Bulls sacrifice their wing play. Of the three, only Cahill has the knack to competently fill in different roles on the pitch. “Tim has proven more help this year specifically in that he is very versatile and can perform in an number of positions,” Petke admitted. While true, that has often forced the lifelong forward to adjust in several unnatural positions. Cahill’s deference to teammates only takes him further from the attack. During the aforementioned Sporting KC match, he started on the left flank but often fell back to defense to give Roy Miller the run of play. Not to be outdone, Heath Pearce also took to the attack from centerback, leaving Cahill to fill that gap.

In one match, Cahill featured in nearly all positions on the field other than right fullback, right midfield and goalkeeper.

While Juninho served his suspension and McCarty suffered his injury, Cahill manned a well-defined central unit focused on the teams strengths and fortified by disciplined play. Cahill’s ability to read the field put him in dangerous positions as a trailer on the offense which helped spark his long-lost goalscoring touch.

Asked prior to the Red Bulls’ road match against the Columbus Crew how the team can make all three midfielders fit into one system, Cahill minced no words.

“The program is not all of us can play every game,” he said. “When you look at the bigger picture, we are three games in a week coming up. Juni has been out a couple of weeks, Dax has had a few injuries – seems to work out fine for selection purposes.

“When all three of us are fit, it might be a bit of a coaching headache but a good one, one where we have to assess what team we play against and what method works better.”

During his Tuesday conference call, Petke echoed Cahill’s sentiments.

“Tim has proven more help this year specifically in that he is very versatile and can perform in an number of positions,” Petke acknowledged. “At the end of the day, it’s about getting the best players on the field; but it could also be about the rotation. That’s something that when Dax is fully fit, when Tim and Juninho are fully fit, we will figure that out and get the best lineup that we can. That is the end goal obviously.”

Revealing that McCarty will be available for selection, that time can come as early as this week for their nationally televised encounter against the LA Galaxy.

“We are different players,” Juninho said. “Though my English isn’t good, our understanding on the field is. It’s more about adapting to situations than seeing it as a limitation.

“Every player has their own characteristics,” he acknowledged. “You lose and gain things with each player. (McCarty) has some, I have others. Tim is also an excellent player. The team is not made of just eleven players; it’s a full roster. To win, you have to be able to rotate within the roster and hopefully we can continue to do well as we have the last couple of games.

“It’s going to be a hard one but we all train hard and look to find our own spaces in a team and whatever void we have to fill, will be done.”


  1. If Juninho must start then why not a 4-4-1-1? Everton used Cahill there at times and he was VERY effective.


  2. Starting to think that NY should go with a striker for the 3rd Dp. Someone like Lisandro Lopez would be awesome next to Henry. Cahill playing in an attacking midfield role behind them with dax as a defensive mid. Espindola at left mid and Sam at right mid.That is a bunch of hardworking players with high soccer IQs. Drop Digao and get another center back who is starting material, maybe make a trade for Soumare. That would be an awesome team….

    • I don’t think Espy would be better than Steele at left mid, he has played better than I thought. I also don’t think Soumare would crack the backline though I would admit he would be a better option of the bench than an overpaid Digao

    • Nah, bro. RBNY need some width by signing a true winger, or possibly even 2. Can’t expect to rely on Steele(playing above his potential) and Alexander(realistically a CM, not a RM).

  3. Can someone explain why the 4-3-3 didnt work? I didnt watch thise games but it seems like it should have worked in theory.

    • “Foreseeing the issue, Petke’s initial 4-3-3 formation aimed to alleviate the problem by pushing the burden of the team’s width play on the forward lines. It quickly proved ineffective; the Red Bulls went 1-3-2 in their first six games under the system”

      I guess out three midfielders in questions are not wingers and that is the only way this would work effectively, running up and down the sidelines

    • The style was too predictable basically. Since there was no width to the attack, the defenses had a fairly easy time figuring them out.

  4. I wouldn’t frame it that way, more of a 4-1-3-2 or a 4-1-2-3 depending on the moment. Here is what I am proposing:

    Espindola-Juninho-Alexander (Sam)
    Back Four

    • I see. But I think Petke is still wary of anything tht looks like a narrow midfield. Also not sure if Espindola’s pace and open-field ball skills are sufficient to put him there. But they’re interesting ideas.

  5. This really isn’t that complicated if you let them all play positions that play to their strengths. Dax is best as holding defender above the back four. Juninho is best with the ball at his feet as a central mid attacking playmaker (and is far and away the best distributor RB has in the midfield). Cahill is best with his head in the area. As long as Cahil stays high and Dax stays back and Juninho plays link up, there won’t be a logjam in the middle. The “problem” is trying to cram the lesser players like Steele, Alexander, Sam, Espindola etc. onto the field at the same time.

    • Are you then proposing Cahill as a second forward, in the 4-4-1-1 suggested above by Gary Page? You’d still have two midfield spots to fill, from among the “lesser plays” you list. If you’re suggesting playing all three guys in the midfiled in a 4-3-3, Petke has pretty much abandoned that concept.

    • Thank god someone else sees it like I do. I think Petke has done a fine job so far but it ridiculous to not build the team around them as well. It’s not that difficult to envision a midfield where all three of them can play. And you just described it. if he plays something more akin to 3-5 -1 I think everyone could be satisfied. Like you said Dax would play a sweeping role infront of whatever backline we choose. In this case Markus and Olave have proved by far to be the best backs we have and consistently get back quickly. You can then have your pick for any other full back of your choice. All of NY fullbacks love to attack every single one. With Petkes system he can easily have them competing for a starting position as the fullback to compliment Dax and Markus and Olave. In front of Dax Juni would play with the ball in his feet.with more players playing upfield this should allow him more options for distributing. With Cahill playing in front of him it gives Juni an extra target and a more skilled one at that to receive his passes. With Henry being a given playing up top, it becomes more of decision per game as to how you will adjust that shell depending on the team in question. NY has fairly good depth and can juggle the rest of their “second tier” players in starting positions when need be. Steele has done well the last few games. Alexander has been fairly effective for stretches. From what I’ve seen from Akpan plenty of promise there as well. I don’t know, I mean I cant say I’m displeased that much with this team this season. They’ve done well. Hopefully no one sees this as a weakness.

  6. Cahill is kind of like Dempsey in that he can play both forward and CAM. I think, like Dempsey, his best position is behind the striker. Maybe NY should play a 4-4-1-1.

  7. Good coverage and Interesting problem to have. As Juni says they are different players. A coaching challenge to decide who based on practice, opponent, health and availability.

  8. Pretty simple solution. Juninho has been by far the least effective of the troika. Start a cm tandem of Dax and Timmy. Bring Juninho off the bench at the 60th minute and push Cahill to another spot for whoever has been least effective. Juninho at his age can’t go full speed for 90 minutes anyway.

  9. I appreciate the detailed coverage of an interesting issue, but this strikes me as an advantage rather than a problem. As the team has already learned, and as common sense reveals, quality depth is important when you face a congested schedule, injuries, absence for national team duty, unforgiving playing surfaces, and a need to rest a 38-year-old. The other team’s personnel and style can also help to determine which two of the three should play, as can the game situation and score.


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