Markus Holgersson earns "right to be comfortable" in New York Red Bulls defense

HARRISON, N.J. – Listen to New York Red Bulls center back Markus Holgersson speak these days and you’ll notice that his English has drastically improved since last year.

That, however, is not the only area where Holgersson has made strides lately.

Since earning his first start of the year in a scoreless draw with D.C. United on March 16, Holgersson has delivered a string of quiet but steady performances in the heart of the Red Bulls defense. The outings the Swede has put forth in that span are the kind that frustratingly eluded him at times during the 2012 campaign and during parts of the 2013 preseason, when he lost his projected starting spot to Heath Pearce before reclaiming it after only two games on the bench.

New York Red Bulls 2, Montreal Impact 1 | MLS Match Recap

“Markus has had a phenomenal response since the beginning of the season when he wasn’t playing, and I said it all along, that’s what I want,” head coach Mike Petke said after his club’s 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact on Wednesday. “I want players to not feel comfortable until they’ve earned the right to be comfortable. At this moment, Markus has earned the right to be comfortable.

“He’s doing everything we expect of him: He’s playing solid defense, making smart decisions with the ball at his feet, starting our attack a lot of the time and he’s playing on the left side, where he’s not used to. It’s a lot to ask of him and we’re very happy with where he is right now.”

Holgersson is equally elated and Wednesday’s victory against the Impact is just the most recent example of his improved form. He not only assisted on Thierry Henry’s wonderful game-winning goal late in the match, but he was also constantly in the thick of things defensively, snuffing out attack after attack and showing more composure on the ball than he did during most of last year.

For Holgersson, the play of his teammates has been vital to his recent success.

READ: Red Bulls defense tightens up as club surges to top of the East

“It’s so much easier for me to play at the back when we have effort there,” said Holgersson. “We’re working so hard for each other and you see the midfield, we’re fighting on every ball. When me and [center back partner Jámison] Olave go up, there is always someone fighting for a second ball. That helps us a lot.”

Confidence may be high, but Holgersson can still commit the occasional blunder, whether in defense or with his passing. Nevertheless, that doesn't take away from how well the veteran is faring in Petke’s system, even if there is more room for improvement.

“He wants me to be tough and go up against [opposing] forwards but [also] try to play out,” said Holgersson. “We haven’t done it as much the last four games as much as we want to do, but he’s telling us to do it. That’s one of the keys, to get higher up with the ball and earlier, so we can have better control of the passing game.”

If his English is any indication, it's only a matter of time before Holgersson has that down pat as well.

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.