It looks like the New York Red Bulls have changed direction in their quest for an attacking midfielder.
After both Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh and Head Coach Mike Petke labeled a creative distributor as their “top priority” this transfer season, the team has fallen short of finding that unique and elusive player. The closest possibility to an acquisition – Venezuelan midfielder Ronald Vargas – was never even considered a possibility by the team according to Roxburgh.
The Red Bulls, then, remains at square one — but Petke doesn’t think that is such a bad place to be.
“The fact of the matter is, yes, at the end of last season throughout this season, my wishlist included an attacking minded midfielder who can thread things,” Petke noted. “I think the way things stand at this moment, yes, I do not want to rip my team apart for the sake of saying we need one specific position. I think that is a credit to the players. They haven’t given me a reason to do that. I am not going to rip my team apart unless they give me reason to.”
While the team’s lofty achievements have influenced the club’s thinking, that is only a piece of the puzzle. Part of the problem, he explains, is that New York simply do not have the money to find that player. Salary cap issues have been a burden for the team since the beginning of the offseason. Inflating salaries and bonuses have put New York in a tight spot. Players like Fabian Espindola, Markus Holgersson and Heath Pearce each became cap casualties, forcing New York to retool their side.
“I hate to beat a dead horse, but we don’t have the money at this moment to get [an attacking midfielder],” Petke laments. “Not to say we can’t make moves to get something, but at this moment, if we take the way we play structurally last year and tweak it a little bit, I think we can improve a bit at what we are doing. If that includes the possibility of getting an attacking midfielder, that would be great for us.
“On the negative side, it would change the way we play,” he cautions. “To have an attacking midfielder, it would be more difficult to play a flat 4-4-2. That’s what we are from a starting standpoint.”
While that formation has not produced the prettiest football, it certainly has been the most effective tactic in team history. Petke is quick to point out that the team was the highest scoring side in MLS last year en route to winning the Supporters’ Shield. Even if improvements needed to be made, the Red Bull boss is comfortable with his current options.
“Let’s look at the positives first,” Petke says. “I think we were very, very effective in how we approached games last year. There came a point last season where we stopped kidding ourselves – we are not a Barcelona type team and we are not going to be one, so why are we going to try to play like one? We got down to solid defensive work. We became the best counter attacking team in the league – by far.”
One player who would directly be effected by the addition of a creative midfielder is Tim Cahill. The acquisition of a number ten would allow him to move up top to his natural forward position. As tempting as that may sound, even the Australian international is not convinced the addition of said midfielder would prove beneficial for the club.
“I think we were the highest scoring team in the league and we weren’t creative in the middle,” said a matter-of-fact Cahill. “That is the answer to the question. You can change it and bring in a creative midfielder, you can push me up, you can keep me there. [But] Me and Thierry [Henry] finished top of the charts for our team, and our main aim was to get a consistency of a team playing formation that’d be hard to beat, hard to break down, a more defensive rock and then, everyone pitching in with a goal.
“So the answer to that question is we had supposedly no creative midfielder, but we were the highest-scoring team in the league.”
Cahill, who lived through half a season of the Hans Backe era, appreciates and celebrates the monumental shift in the team year over year, and is cautious about upsetting that achievement. “I look at reality and the reality is before I come here, in the 20 games I played in the half season, assessing the team, assessing what we were all about, our main issue was conceding goals and not being able to play on the road,” he details. “We fixed two of the biggest issues a club could ever have and we won our first trophy ever. I still focus on defensive, disciplined and compactness first before anything, but to be compact, defensively great, we obviously could be better and be the highest scoring team in the league without the supposed creative midfielder, I think it says a lot from where we have come from as a team and where we are now.”
Further, Cahill points out, there are options within the team that can fill a creative role in the middle without compromising the system. “Ya, you can bring a creative midfielder in, but creativity can come from anywhere,” he said. “When Thierry [Henry] drops deep, he can create anything. He could be that man. Anyone can be that man.”
Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh is of a similar mindset. While nothing is set in stone, he mentioned the ability to take U.S. veteran Bobby Convey and reposition him into a distributors role as well, allowing Steele to continue his work on the left hand side and pushing Cahill to the forward position.
“If they bring one in? Fantastic,” said Cahill. “If they don’t? if they bring in someone a bit different, you can bring in a holding midfielder that might change it, you can bring in a creative midfielder, a striker, but the main thing is what we stood for the last year, year-and-a-half. The reason why we won our first trophy.
“Overall, I am open to anything because obviously I am a team player, but I like to really focus on what got us here and try to get that again this season. Now the question will be asked can we do it again? We have to be able to stand up to that challenge.”