UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- When the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC square off this weekend, the match will signify more than just a battle of two teams looking to erase their slow starts to the season.
It will also mark the first time that Mike Petke and Ryan Nelsen, friends and former teammates, go up against one another as head coaches.
The two rookie managers head into the first Red Bulls-Toronto FC meeting of the year on Saturday knowing they could use three points after sluggish starts to the season. But Petke knows that guiding his New York squad to a road win over Toronto at BMO Field won’t be easy, especially because of the way Nelsen has the Reds playing these days.
“Their possession has dramatically improved, with [Robert] Earnshaw up top they’re a threat any time going forward,” Petke told reporters after Wednesday’s practice. “They’re a very direct team at times, with even set pieces at midfield sent into the box, then a guy like [Justin] Braun, who is a huge forward.
“They’re more organized, they’re very organized, and that doesn’t surprise me because of the way Ryan was," Petke continued. "I’m impressed with how much they’ve improved and we have our work cut out for us.”
Petke may be full of high praise for how Toronto FC are playing under his former D.C. United teammate, but like New York, TFC have failed with consistency in 2013. The Reds have won just once in seven games this season and a victory is sorely needed after several late-game collapses in recent weeks.
The Red Bulls, meanwhile, have yet to get results in two consecutive games this year and their performances have fluctuated from very impressive to downright dismal.
Still, it is issues like those and having to manage through them that have Petke and Nelsen relating to one another, and why the two will likely meet and catch up prior to shifting gears and trying to oust one another on Saturday.
“I spoke with him a couple of weeks ago, had a couple of laughs about how different it is then we expected it to be, how crazy it is,” said Petke. “He’s done great with the team. Coming from last year the way the team was, they’ve dramatically improved in such a short amount of time and a lot of credit goes for Ryan.
“He’s very knowledgeable of the game, he’s a friend, he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with. It’s going to be nice to see him.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.