Alex Labidou: New York Red Bulls look like contenders under Mike Petke

The Red Bulls have turned their season around after a slow start and plenty of credit has to go to the club's first-year head coach
HARRISON, N.J. -- Just over a month ago, Mike Petke stood in front of reporters after the New York Red Bulls lost 1-0 to Sporting Kansas City, and appeared to be facing a potential crisis.
Although Petke tried to project confidence in his responses, his body language and choked up voice told a different story. Sporting KC had exposed New York as an awful team with Red Bulls global director Gerard Houllier in attendance at Red Bull Arena.

The club's offense was one dimensional, solely relying on star forward Thierry Henry to bail it out. The defense wasn't much better, reminding many of the mistakes made during Hans Backe's tenure as head coach. If the Red Bulls kept on playing that way, it wouldn't have been surprising to see the team make an early season change with their rookie manager.

What a difference a few weeks make.

After Sunday's stunning 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy, the current MLS Cup holders, it's clear that the Red Bulls are behind their first-year coach. It wasn't pretty at times but New York looked determined to prove itself as a member of MLS's elite against Los Angeles.
"Since I've been here, I think we would have lost that game before," team captain Thierry Henry said. "The thing I learned today is that we can win these games. I thought LA was better than today but we won."

Los Angeles asserted itself on offense during the second half but New York relied on the superb defensive play of Jamison Olave, Markus Holgersson and goalkeeper Luis Robles to stay in the game. Then in the dying minutes, Robbie Keane missed an opportunity to seal three points for the Galaxy as his header in front of goal sailed wide right.

New York took advantage.

In the game's last minute, the Red Bulls' Juninho found Tim Cahill open in the penalty box on a free kick and the Australian headed in the game's winner. The near sellout crowd at Red Bull Arena erupted, realizing they were witnessing something rare from the club: it overachieved and defied the odds.

While most in Los Angeles' locker room believed the Red Bulls were lucky in their win, Galaxy star Landon Donovan believes that New York has found itself over the past few weeks after starting poorly.

"They are a good team, there's no question about it." Donovan said after the defeat. "I think the tumultuous start sort of woke them up. They have too many good players not to be good."

But the Red Bulls turnaround isn't solely a matter of the team's talented personnel waking out of an early season funk, there were tactical changes made that have been clicking for the team.

Holgersson pointed to the team's approach in midfield as the biggest change between Petke and Backe.

"The difference is the midfield," Holgersson explained. "Last year, we were running around too much. We were attacking from everywhere, our outside backs were flying away and guys in the middle. This year we are more compact.

"It's both [coaching and personnel], we've talked a lot about improving [defensively]."

Holgersson explained that he and Olave communicate to each other during the game and determine where to cover for mistakes on the offensive end. That has helped the team against the counter attack, a weakness the Red Bulls had last year.

Another major factor in the Red Bulls recent streak has been the emergence of Cahill as a scoring option. The former Everton star has been a solid locker room and work rate player for New York but his contributions on offense - creating and scoring goals - had been disappointing until over the past month.

Cahill has scored four goals in six games and is finally starting to look he's worth the $3.5 million salary that he makes annually as a DP. It is a combination of those factors that has New York on top of the Eastern Conference with 24 points.

Taking the podium for his post-match press conference on Sunday afternoon, Petke resembled who he was as a 12-year center back in MLS, rather than the politically correct corporate approach he had at the beginning of the season.

He was laid-back, confident and at times, even humorous, sharing to reporters how LA coach Bruce Arena asked if his suit was straight off the rack. But he is still focused on the task at hand.

"Losing today is not going to put us in the bottom; winning today is not going to show us to the MLS Cup," Petke remarked.

Looks like Petke's starting to get a hang of this coaching thing....