HARRISON, N.J. – Mike Petke may have taken the biggest gamble of his young coaching career in excluding Thierry Henry from the New York Red Bulls’ starting lineup on Saturday, but the decision paid off in the end.
Petke made a number of changes to his usual starting XI, but the most dramatic was leaving Henry on the bench at the start of the Red Bulls’ clash with rivals D.C. United after coach and player clashed during Thursday's training session. The first-year head coach opted to partner Bradley Wright-Phillips with a more advanced Tim Cahill up top, and Petke also moved Eric Alexander to a central midfield role to make way for Lloyd Sam on the right flank.
The result of those tactical adjustments? A 2-1 victory that not only tied the Red Bulls with the Montreal Impact and Sporting Kansas City for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but also showed that New York may be a deeper team than some thought as recently as a week ago – especially given their performance after Ibrahim Sekagya's 72nd-minute ejection.
“It was a gritty, gutsy performance and we had some quality mixed in there for a lot of the game,” said Petke during his postgame press conference. “When we went down a man, it was difficult on these guys but a gutsy performance. They really put everything they had out there.”
The Red Bulls still needed goalkeeper Luis Robles to deny Dwayne De Rosario on a penalty kick in the second half immediately after Sekagya was sent off for a foul in the box on the United striker. But New York's offensive performance was encouraging.
Sam added what Cahill described as “another dimension” on the right side of the midfield with his speed and crosses, and Wright-Phillips brought some much-needed pace and a high work rate up top.
It’s no surprise, then, that both of them were heavily involved in the game and played a part in Sam’s 8th-minute opener, with Wright-Phillips winning a ball in United’s half before Sam beat D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid with a chip shot that flew off the far post and over the goalline.
“I thought Lloyd did phenomenal,” Petke said. “I actually thought we didn’t get him enough of the ball in the first half. But when he got it, he beat his man and provided quality crosses.
“Bradley [Wright-Phillips] did very well tonight, along with everybody,” added Petke. “His timing on his runs was very good, his ball control with his back to the goal, playing one- and two-touch, laying it off and spinning, his understanding with Tim up there, and when Thierry came in for the short time he was on. It was good.”
As for the reasoning behind the benching of Henry, Petke would say little other than it was a coach’s decision. That will leave many observers to speculate that it was a result of their confrontation on Thursday, but Petke made it seem as if that was not the case.
“He’s a fiery personality, I’m a fiery personality. We get together [and] sometimes it’s like a tornado meeting a volcano,” Petke said. “As far as what exactly it was about, that’s a team-related thing. … We immediately were in my office for two hours and had a civil conversation.
“I heard him out, of course, he heard me out and we moved on immediately. Immediately. It didn’t affect the team whatsoever. It didn’t affect Thierry. It didn’t affect me. He’s on board and that’s exactly what happened.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.