TUCSON, Ariz. – New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke says he’s still uncertain as to who his starting back four is, and that hasn’t given him a good feeling thus far in preseason.
“I have an idea of what I’d like to see, but I have yet to see it,” he told MLSsoccer.com at Friday’s training session. “There are a lot of questions still to be answered. I like competition within positions, and on the backline, we certainly have some spots up for grabs.”
New York have three incumbent would-be starters competing for spots in Heath Pearce, Roy Miller and Markus Holgersson. They also have two newcomers in Kosuke Kimura and Jámison Olave as well as returning role players such as Digão, Connor Lade and Brandon Barklage.
Thus far in preseason, Petke says, no one has stood out and made a case to make a position his own – with perhaps the exception of one.
“Olave’s been the player we’ve wanted him to be,” Petke said of the former RSL man, “so he’s in a very good situation.”
Assuming the former Defender of the Year (at right) has one of the center back spots locked down, the question becomes who pairs with him. Pearce and Holgersson are the obvious choices, but Petke wouldn’t tip his hand at either. He did add that Holgersson “needs to step up a bit and take a bit more of a vocal responsibility.”
The versatile Pearce can also play at left back, where Miller has spent the majority of his MLS career and has been productive on the overlap, but has also shown a tendency for lapses on defense. Lade can also play in that spot. Kimura, acquired from Portland in an offseason deal, is a potential starter out right, with Barklage right on his tail.
Petke has experimented with four different combinations of backlines during the Desert Diamond Cup, in which the Red Bulls are winless in three games and have been outscored 7-3, and have continued their worrying trend of giving up goals in quick succession. Four of those goals conceded here have come within five minutes of each other.
Last season, New York gave up 12 goals within the first 15 minutes of games – the most in the league – and 19 within the first half-hour of games, tied for worst with two other teams.
“We still have some issues extending back a couple years with momentary lapses on defense [and] slow starting on defense,” Petke said. “Guys [are] not willing to get stuck in and, as a defender, that’s the first and foremost thing you need. I’m looking for someone else to step up and that’s why there’s been a couple of changes.”
“Last year’s quality isn’t good enough. It’s not going to get us to where we need to be. Pearce, Holgersson, Olave – it’s irrelevant to me. At the end of the day, whoever deserves to start is going to rise above."
New York play New England in their preseason finale on Saturday in the third-place match of the Desert Diamond Cup.