Mike Petke, New York Red Bulls (March 23, 2014)
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New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke having tough time finding best starting unit this year

HANOVER, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls may have brought back the core of last year’s successful team this season, but that has presented quite a challenge to head coach Mike Petke and is one he is still sorting through.

With much of the 2013 Supporters’ Shield-winning side having returned and the introduction of a few offseason additions that are vying for starting spots, Petke has had a tough time thus far figuring out what pieces on the deep squad best fit together in his lineup.

It might seem simple to find a suitable starting unit that provides balance on both sides of the ball, given last year’s success and the talent on the roster. But Petke admitted Wednesday that is not the case, not when the club wants to avoid stagnating and build on their accomplishments.

“It was a challenge last year, too. This year perhaps even more so,” said Petke. “Every week someone’s not going to be happy and someone is going to be happy, and that’s the nature of the game. It’s about hopefully that what we had last year – with such team camaraderie and everybody on the same page – we continue to have this year and they understand that they’re going to have their moments, but in some moments they’re not going to start.

“As long as they understand that and they know it’s for the team and they buy into that, then it’s better for us.”

The past three weeks have shown just how hard it has been for Petke to find a starting XI that meshes together. The second-year head coach has tinkered with the lineup from game to game due to various reasons (suspension, international call-ups, etc.), and has seen mixed results on the field while the club has posted a 0-1-2 record.

Week 1’s 4-1 loss in Vancouver saw the Red Bulls struggle mightily in defense, but they have gradually improved in that area since and despite the starting center back tandem continuing to change. New York have surrendered just one goal in each of their last two matches, 1-1 draws with the Rapids and Fire, and neither of the strikes came from the run of play.

“Score line, absolutely,” said Petke when asked if he’s seen an improvement on the defensive side. “We gave up four goals in the first game then down to one then to one. It appears that has gotten better, for sure, but there still has to be a number of things to improve upon: Our comfort level with the ball in the back coming out, our line being in sync together, one-on-one defending.”

While the defense may still need some work, it is the attack that is currently sputtering and under the microscope. The Red Bulls, the highest-scoring club in 2013, have struggled to create quality chances in their three matches this season and only have three goals to their name.

Those numbers have led many supporters and sections of the media to clamor for the reintroduction of Péguy Luyindula, the veteran Frenchman who shone in central midfield late last year but has yet to get a start at that position in 2014.

Petke said Wednesday that Luyindula will likely get his chance in the near future, but that like everyone else he is fighting for a starting spot in a lineup that is likely to continue to be shuffled in the coming weeks.

“It’s a game-by-game thing, and guys like him, because they’re not in the lineup, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve done something wrong,” said Petke. “It means that other guys I see [as] a better fit for that game. Peguy is very good with the ball at his feet and if he continues to be like that, specifically in practice, he will find himself back on the field, for sure.

“Whether that means this weekend, the following weekend or whatever role it is. Péguy is somebody that I like to have on my team, so he’s in a situation like a lot of people are: that there’s a lot of players in each position.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.

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