HANOVER, N.J. – The talent up top is there, but the blueprint to make it function is still a work in progress.
The New York Red Bulls boast a group of forwards that is arguably among the best in MLS due to the main contributors’ combination of talent and experience, but the result thus far this season has been underwhelming, to say the least. The three main strikers on the roster have a total of nine goals through 17 league games heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Houston Dynamo, and star striker Thierry Henry accounts for six of them.
The other three tallies have come from MLS veteran Fabián Espíndola, while former Lyon striker Péguy Luyindula has yet to open his account in the league. Both are subpar totals from two players who have proven capable of finding the back of the net in their previous career stops.
So why exactly are the two Red Bulls strikers are struggling to score? Head coach Mike Petke is not entirely sure.
“I can’t analyze it perfectly. If I had the answers, I’d fix it right away,” Petke said Wednesday. “Fabián comes from a system at Salt Lake that was very structured and they worked on that for years to perfect it. This is my first year and we’re trying to figure things out.
Petke said that he believes Espíndola – who accounted for 19 goals over the last two seasons but has gone ice cold for New York with eight straight scoreless games – might actually be tiring himself out, which has directly affected his efficiency in front of the net.
“My biggest credit to Fabián is also what kills him: His work ethic,” Petke said. “He’s a tireless worker that he runs so much and wants to help the team so much. My thing with him is I feel you do too much running behind the ball and then when we get the ball it’s trying to do too much. It’s a good thing because he wants to score, he wants to help the team in any way. It’s about curbing that, in a way.”
For Luyindula (right), the problem lies elsewhere. First, the 33-year-old Frenchman acknowledges that he isn’t in ideal shape after joining the team without a real preseason and suffering a pair of setbacks in the form of injuries. But he also suspects the forwards are not getting enough service up top, a systematic problem that comes from lacking a truly creative or dynamic player in the midfield.
Henry, for example, is often seen dropping back into the midfield to receive the ball, negating the goal-scoring prowess that has proven so lethal at times.
“The problem is the team’s shape. You have to put the striker on the way to the goal,” Luyindula told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s like defending. Defending is not just the part of the four defenders, it’s the whole team, and attacking is the same way. If the attackers fetch the ball always like 35, 30 yards away from the goal, it’s difficult, and then you will have one after you’re exhausted and it’s hard to finish an action when you’re exhausted.
“You have to be concentrated and try to make this action to put your attackers in good positions,” he added. “It’s a team thing. It’s not just Thierry thing or mine or Fabian. It comes all together. Like I said from the defender, when we defend bad, it’s not just their fault, it’s the whole team’s.”
Luyindula, who also admitted he’s frustrated with not scoring, may have a point. He did miss his share of sitters during his first few appearances with New York, but he has not seen too many balls in dangerous positions recently, and neither have Espíndola or Henry. The Red Bulls are often forced to settle for half-chances or set pieces in the attacking third, and that’s simply not good enough for a team that has aspirations of winning an MLS Cup.
Still, Petke is not overly worried. At least, not yet.
“I wouldn’t use the word concern,” said Petke. “It’s like Tim [Cahill]. Tim finally got on the score sheet and followed it up and followed it up. When either of them gets back to that one goal put away and it’s going to give them confidence and it’s going to keep going.
“I don’t care where the goals come from, to be honest with you,” he added. “I could care less where they come from as long as they come. We’ve done so much to get into the attack and get those opportunities but perhaps didn’t put away as close to as many as we should have. It’s halfway through the season and we’re not pushing any type of [panic] button yet.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.