By FRANCO PANIZO
The New York Red Bulls wrapped up Thursday’s morning training session by doing an 11-v-11 drill. Immediately after it ended, a clearly upset Tim Cahill was the first player to walk off the field with Andy Roxburgh in tow trying to calm the midfielder down.
Then, Cahill uttered aloud, “I come here to train. I’m wasting my (expletive) time.”
The outburst was a rare moment of extreme frustration from the usually composed Cahill, but not an entirely surprising one. For much of this season, the Australian international has struggled to find a regular role in the Red Bulls’ lineup. He has bounced between forward and midfield without cementing a place in the team, and all while trying to juggle the demanding international duties of a World Cup year.
Those factors combined with the emergence of forward Bradley Wright-Phillips have seen head coach Mike Petke give Cahill a reduced role, especially in the attack, one season after the Designated Player played a major part in helping the Red Bulls lift the Supporters’ Shield. The tactical switch has forced Cahill to try and adapt, but his constant call-ups to Australia have not allowed him to fully settle and recently forced Petke to field a lineup with Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander in holding roles that has proven more successful.
Going from key contributor to blue-collar starter is one thing. Going from key contributor to the bench is another, especially when you’re the star player for your country.
So it stands to reason that the 34-year-old Designated Player is irritated over having a lesser role, and why he has no issues over leaving for a pair of international friendlies next week despite the Red Bulls being in the thick of a race for a playoff spot in the tight Eastern Conference.
“At the end of the day, everything that we did last year, I was involved in everything,” Cahill told reporters on Friday. “We got a Supporters’ Shield, we won the first trophy here in 18 years, and now things are changed up. If that’s the way it’s going to be, that’s the way it’s going to be.
“My mental focus is for the team and not for myself individually. … If I don’t play here, if I don’t play tomorrow because of international duty, then I will play Qatar and (United Arab Emirates). If I come back and I don’t play again, then I will address the situation.”
Cahill later added: “I don’t pick the formation, I don’t pick the team. All I know is that last year when I was playing, we seemed to do okay.”
It might seem like this boiling over of frustrations is down to him being benched by Petke in recent weeks, but for several observers that follow the team regularly this feels like something that has been building up for months due in part to how he is utilized in Petke’s system. Think about, how often recently have you seen Cahill go up to challenge for one of his trademark headers?
Last season, Cahill was as automatic in terms of being available postgame for interviews as he was to be in New York’s lineup. Win or lose, good or bad performance, he would talk to the media at length and answer any and all questions. He was voted the Red Bulls’ Media Good Guy by the press at the end of the campaign.
This year, things have changed. Cahill often slips out of the locker room by the time local reporters get access to speak to players. When he does talk, he is still as engaged and charismatic as always, but there is a sense from some of his responses that he has not bought into his role the same way he did last season, when he scored a team-high 11 goals and was in the conversation for MLS MVP.
“With the Australian team, I know my job,” Cahill said back in early September when asked about the difference between playing as a forward and midfielder. “I have to make the box and I know where the ball’s going to go before it even gets in there. My last eight games with Australia I’ve scored seven goals and against some of the best teams in the world.
“Here, it’s discipline. It’s hard because even though you make the box, it might not be there, it might be for someone else. You seen the other day when I run into the box, it frees up two other players, so it’s very physical. They mark very well, so as long as someone else is getting in and scoring then that’s great.
“Overall, domestic to international for me it’s not in the same level when it comes to tactics or whatever. I might play next to Dax (McCarty), we might take turns in going. When I come on the other day sitting (vs. D.C. United) next to Dax, possibly I wanted to swap with Peguy (Luyindula) and get up higher and it’s just playing what you have to and adjusting.”
Cahill proved this summer at the World Cup that he can still play at a very high level, and also showed in MLS that he was worth his $3.5 million price tag last season when he led the Red Bulls to their first trophy.
In New York, however, the team has evolved. Wright-Phillips is now the top scoring threat next to Henry. Luyindula is seen as one of the more creative players on the club. McCarty and Eric Alexander are deemed to give the defense more cover. Youngster Ambroise Oyongo has stepped up as a left-sided player to provide further competition in the midfield.
Cahill might have a tough time cracking into that Red Bulls’ lineup for the remainder of the season, but it is the situation he is in and one he will have to come to terms with if he wants to avoid a different type of frustration. One that comes when you miss the playoffs.