HANOVER, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls have conceded seven times within the first 12 minutes of games this season, but that is not something that is troubling head coach Mike Petke all that much.
What is bothering Petke about his defense, however, is the lack of a true vocal leader.
The Red Bulls are entering their home game on Saturday against the Columbus Crew (7 pm ET, MLS LIVE) having conceded seven goals in their last three games across all competitions. What Petke attributes some of his side’s defensive frailties in that stretch and over the course of the first half of the season is the lack of a strong personality at the back.
Someone who will let teammates know when they messed up. Someone who will show some fire and step to opponents when it’s needed. Someone who can lead not only with his play, but with his words.
“I’m still waiting for – and we have three young guys back there now which we’re very excited about for the future – someone to step up and claim the back line as his and be that vocal leader and be that in-your-face leader when we need it,” said Petke. “I think we’re a little too quiet in the back, I think that we’re a little unsure of at times. It’s all things that we constantly work on at practice so you have to figure that eventually it will click.”
It is tough at the moment to envision that happening because of the personnel that currently make up New York’s starting defense. Jamison Olave is a top-notch center back in MLS but he has always been more the quiet type who leads by example.
Surrounding him in the starting defense right now are three youngsters with little in the way of professional experience. Center back Matt Miazga is 19 years-old and in his second season, right back Chris Duvall is a 22-year-old rookie and 23-year-old left back Ambroise Oyongo is playing in his first season in MLS.
Even veteran left back Roy Miller – who is expected to resume starting once he returns from World Cup duty with Costa Rica – is not a very vocal player and neither is center back Ibrahim Sekagya. Central defender Armando is more boisterous, but he has had uneven performances during his first year in MLS.
All that would seem to put the responsibility of being a leader on Olave, but Petke does not mind if it is not the Colombian so long as someone steps up.
“The way I look at it is, at the end of the day, as a player there’s going to come a point that you’re going to retire and you’re going to sit back and look back on your career and it’s a short career,” said Petke. “If it’s a situation that a young kid doesn’t feel confident doing it or an older guy is set in his ways … change your ways a little bit. If you’re too young and you’re a little nervous about speaking up, throw that out the window because at the end of the day you look yourself in the mirror and you say, ‘Did I do everything today to help myself, to help this team?’ and if you can’t answer, ‘Yes,’ you’re looking at the person to blame in the mirror.
“I want guys that don’t [care], that throw caution to the wind and just say, ‘I’m going to lead this team,’ or, ‘I’m going to do this’, or, ‘I’m going to step up’ or, ‘I’m going to take this by the back of the neck.’ That’s what we need.”
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Petke himself was a very fiery and local center back during his playing days, so he knows there is a chance that what he is asking of his defenders might not be as easy he thinks. Still, Petke is hoping that at least one of his players pushes past his comfort zone and takes the responsibility of guiding a back four that could use a bit more leadership.
“I go back to someone stepping up, taking responsibility,” said Petke of his back line’s struggles. "I’ve been a defender in this league for a long time. Perhaps I think it’s easier than it actually is, I don’t know. But at the end of the day, I’m not concerned about the big things that go wrong.
“I’m concerned about the little things that go wrong: the times that we’re too deep and it’s over and over again. At this point if you don’t know where the line should be, either I’m doing my job wrong or I’m not translating it properly. … At the end of the day, the guys that are playing in the back four are good players and they’re good defenders so I do think it will come together as the days and weeks go on. But right now we have a big game this weekend and they have to be on their toes and I’m confident that they will.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.