Due to his fitness and ongoing acclimation process with the team, it is difficult to cast a definitive judgment on Tim Cahill’s role with the New York Red Bulls.
That doesn’t mean certain conclusions can’t be drawn.
Through three matches, Cahill has managed to deliver two magical assists and a crushing goal which may have had a little bit of luck in finding the back of the net. Not a bad start for any player, let alone the team’s third DP.
Nevertheless, it has become clear he may not be the prototypical #10 New York suggested they would acquire from the onset of the summer transfer window. That isn’t a condemnation of his play – it is simply fact. Whether due to fitness or design, he has played a deep lying role in the Red Bulls midfield, preferring to work in the shadows while pouncing on space when available.
Thus far, the unusual role has produced results.
Paired alongside box to box engine Dax McCarty, it has been Cahill showing deference and providing cover for the young American midfielder more often than the alternative. In their limited time together, it is McCarty who has been pushed forward while Cahill has remained content patrolling the midfield stripe.
In fact, most of Cahill’s time has been spent near and around the center line. Take the team’s latest encounter against the Portland Timbers as an example:
He played a similar role against the Dynamo last week – to great effect. Taking advantage of open space down the middle of the pitch, with wing play stretching the defenders, Cahill left his deep lying midfield spot and snuck into the center of the offensive third, belting a shot that went wide of net. Perhaps an in form Cahill would have had better results under similar circumstances, but that type of opportunistic play has added a dangerous dimension to the midfield.
“It’s really difficult,” Cahill said with a sigh as he described his first few weeks in MLS. “Probably my first game would have been (Monday’s reserve match). This is my third full 90 minutes. It’s difficult. The pitch is heavy, heavy on the legs. It was like a basketball match. One was attacking, the other was attacking. We are talking 60 minute runs to recover every time and it can’t be like that. It has to be keeping the ball and having longer spells with it.”
Keeping the ball in a deep midfield role helped attract attention in possession for the second goal against Houston last week. Drawing two defenders forward, Cahill held the ball long enough for Henry to take a sneaky run down the left hand side of the field. A brilliant outlet pass sprung the team captain into a scoring position where he found Jan Gunnar Solli for the goal.
Indeed, early returns have been positive, but Amado Guevara or Juan Roman Riquelme he is not. The Australian midfielder/striker is more adept to a sneaky run than creating one. His ability to head the ball on net has already managed to stretch opposing defenses on set piece opportunities.
But to ask him to split defenders with a pin point through ball to an onrushing forward? So far, it looks like that will not be the type of central midfielder New York will be seeing. Instead, the Red Bulls have inherited an opportunist with a nose for goal who will look to expose a defense with his intelligence rather than his service. That, alongside his leadership qualities, brings New York a different, and perhaps equally effective option in the middle as any true enganche could provide.
Take his description of his first MLS goal, which came under scrutiny when it was allowed after the referee’s whistle blew.
“The ball dropped, I volleyed it, and it hit the back of the net,” Cahill succinctly described. “In football, I play until there’s a goal. I was happy with it. Got back on level terms … We didn’t start off well but this is football. You take the best thing from it. When you play bad and win, that’s a sign of a good football team.
“I think the main thing about football is you react to the ball, not to the ref, not to anything. Knowing football, people want the game to be played on and the game to be played in the right way.
“So we showed the attributes of great character, sticking it in there, and finishing it.”
And that is Cahill in a nutshell; a no nonsense, play-through-the whistle-leader (no matter how apparent it may be) who is always prowling for the next chance to exploit. He found that opportunity against Portland, and luck did the rest.
The Evertonian legend is frank about his play, even going so far as to admit Sunday’s match may not have been his “greatest night.” But even as he struggles for fitness, he has made an indelible impression on the Red Bulls attack. Will it be sustainable? Only time will tell. After all, it isn’t McCarty who the Red Bulls organization envisioned pushing up top when they made this deal. Overall, his current role isn’t what New York was looking for, but so far – it’s working.
Riquelme he is not. But perhaps he doesn’t have to be.