If you want to understand why Tim Cahill is such a hot button topic around the New York Red Bulls these days, you need only look at his work over the past week for your answer.
“Sometimes people don’t understand what Tim does,” Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry noted.
It’s not a condemnation of his play, mind you; Henry’s comment was meant to highlight Cahill’s work ethic on both sides of the ball, implying expectations to score goals over-shadow his greater contributions to the team.
Take the Sporting Kansas City match this past Wednesday for instance. Cahill, a long-time target striker and occasional midfielder who is hardly known for his speed, was thrust – out of necessity – to the right side of the Red Bulls midfield.
Anyone watching the game knows that was a right midfield-in-name-only role for the Australian veteran.
As he has been known to do, Cahill showed deference to his teammates, electing to offer support instead of imposing his position. Left sided defensive partner Roy Miller, who is known to take extended strolls into the offensive third, pushed Cahill to left back. Then, Heath Pearce decided he wanted to step up on the offensive side. Suddenly, Cahill was forced into centerback. When his defenders came back to handle their duties, Cahill traded off with his customary teammate Dax McCarty sharing the defensive and offensive responsibilities down the middle of the field.
Eventually, he even saw some time at his traditional striker position as well.
While New Yorkers were sold an attacking midfielder upon his arrival with the team, and though expectations for scoring goals have followed him from his glory days in the Premiership, the Tim Cahill Red Bull fans know is someone entirely different.
“I trust him to fill in pretty much any spot that is needed on this field,” head coach Mike Petke said of his star player. “That’s why he’s, like I used the word time and time again, invaluable.”
“He clears a lot of stuff with his head and he goes into a lot of challenges to win the ball back,” Henry explained. “I thought he was brilliant (against New England).”
“If people were there seven days a week instead of one 90 minute game on a Saturday and had a bit more level expectations, not just because he was in England and he hasn’t scored many goals, he brings so much to this team,” Petke went on. “So, put him anywhere and he’s willing to do it, and he does a great job. Very proud of him for that.”
While his work as a team leader has endeared him to teammates and large segments of the fanbase, his lack of goals has caused some alarm. The calls for Cahill to score have even made it beyond the local fan base and to a national level. ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman took to the air after Sunday’s DC United, Philadelphia Union match to voice his opinion on the matter. The banter leaked it’s way into the world of Twitter, starting a small tete-a-tete between both men, prompting Cahill to label Twellman a “muppet.”
Regardless, it isn’t as if the Australian international hasn’t had his chances. Whether it’s Bill Hamid taking a point blank header to the chest or Bobby Shuttleworth denying him an opportunity this week alone, Cahill has created danger – even as he’s been pulled in 12 different directions while doing it.
“I don’t know who put a spell on him not to score a goal but he creates chances,” Henry noted. “The most annoying part is when you don’t create chances, but he always puts himself in the right situation, perfect position, but at the moment the ball doesn’t want to go in the back of the net.
“I thought at times he was brilliant for us (against New England). He got on that header that hit the crossbar, the defender had got him on his side.”
Henry revealed Cahill was also playing with some discomfort this weekend. “He wasn’t feeling right,” he said. “He had to leave. He wanted to stay actually but sometimes you can’t be too stupid playing with your head like that, so he came out.”
The salary-capped world of Major League Soccer will always bring with it high-expectations for the celebrated “Designated Players.” After all, it is not everywhere in the world that you can find a player earning 80 times the salary of some of his teammates (for example, Cahill earns $3.6 million a year compared with Brandon Barklage, who earned $45k in 2012).
Outside of New York, the judgment on Cahill is made on the quantifiable (goals, assists, minutes) more so than the intangible. But while the rest of the league (and some Red Bull fans) continue to hold expectations high for the goal tally to commence, the Red Bulls and their players believe Cahill’s contributions – both on and off the field – are priceless.
“One thing with Tim, he always goes out there and gives 200%,” Henry said. “I know people are saying he should score more and blah blah blah but he is a great teammate. He goes on the field, even injured, and always gives 200%.
“Goals will come. His attitude is perfect.”
“He plays for the team – always,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “He’s playing out wide, he’s playing up top, he’s playing in the middle.
“Wherever we need him, he is there for us.”
And that’s all that matters for the team that’s paying his salary.