Posted January 24, 2014

Petke, Red Bulls experiencing change: A quiet, understated offseason

Brian Straus, MLS, New York Red Bulls, Supporters Shield, Toronto FC, Transfer window
Mike Petke

New York Red Bulls manager Mike Petke is gearing up for his second season in charge after lifting the Supporters’ Shield in his debut campaign. (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

PHILADELPHIA — The New York Red Bulls, so frequently linked with some of soccer’s biggest names, announced the signing of a former FC Barcelona player on Thursday.

No, not that one.

This specific Spaniard is a 29-year-old central defender named Armando Lozano Sánchez. He played most recently for Córdoba in the Segunda División and turned out for the Blaugrana’s ‘B’ team back in 2009-12. Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh promised that Armando would provide “another experienced option” in back.

That’s what New York is looking for these days: options. There’s no rush to re-invent, no desperate attempt to hide ingrained shortcomings with a big splash. For the first time in what feels like a long time, the Red Bulls seem stable and satisfied heading into a new MLS season. There’s identity, pride and poise, not to mention a major piece of silverware in the trophy case.

The rumors surrounding the potential acquisition of a high-end DP like Barcelona midfield maestro Xavi Hernández will remain just that, as long as Roxburgh deflects them or at least until the summer. For now, the Red Bulls are content to tinker.

“We didn’t make many changes,” head coach Mike Petke said of New York’s offseason. “A couple of necessary ones we had to, whereas in years past it would be a major overhaul every year. We don’t feel like we need to do that. We have a good core.”

Petke was speaking to SI.com at last week’s MLS draft in Philadelphia, where several observers noted that the second-year manager’s demeanor and body language seemed far more relaxed than the year before. That’s no surprise. At the 2013 draft in Indianapolis, Petke still was unsure whether he’d wind up coaching the Red Bulls or looking for work.

An offseason of upheaval already had resulted in the departure of former manager Hans Backe and 14 players. Roxburgh, a Scotsman, had been appointed sporting director and soon brought the likes of Juninho Pernambucano, Jámison Olave and Fabián Espíndola to Red Bull Arena. Every few weeks, another European coach was linked to New York. Meanwhile, Petke plugged away, unsure of his fate.

“It had a certain amount of excitement to it, but overall it was tough. It was very tough,” Petke said. “But we got out of it well, all the uneasiness and uncertainty. And we accomplished something.”

A week after the draft, Petke got the job. Whether it was because Roxburgh and Co. finally realized that only an American manager with Red Bull in his veins could right the ship, or because the season was about to start and none of their preferred candidates worked out, didn’t matter to Petke. He weathered the storm, put his stamp on the team and led New York to the Supporters’ Shield.

“Last year was so sudden and having to jump in and make decisions right away, spur of the moment. This year, you have a little time to think about things and prepare better, so it’s been huge,” Petke said.

The squad is mostly intact. The club parted ways with four players who started at least 10 regular season games, but the established core remains. There’s a sense that the 2013 narrative, highlighted by the emergence of Tim Cahill and Petke’s deft handling of Thierry Henry, can be built upon.

“One would have to imagine it wouldn’t change over a three month period when we have 85, 90 percent of the players back. Our message isn’t going to change from the coaching staff and the front office, and I’m pretty certain the players aren’t going to change,” Petke said.

Regarding the Shield, which ended New York’s much-discussed 17-year major trophy drought, Petke said, “It doesn’t change my outlook or philosophy because that’s part of what got us to that point. Also the players’ outlook, the mentality, the character we showed.

“Of course there’s going to be more pressure, but in a league like this there’s not one dominant team for years. It’s a difficult league to play within those parameters, but we always want to win. Even in years past, if I didn’t agree with the coaches or I didn’t like where the team was at, everybody still wanted to win. It’s never a lack of wanting to win. It’s what you do to get there.”

This season, Petke and New York will try a measured approach. Armando and veteran winger Bobby Convey were the only significant roster additions as the Red Bulls opened camp on Friday. There certainly are questions to be answered, starting with the composition of the back four and the tactical flexibility of a midfield that might be anchored by Cahill or, if he pushes forward, French veteran Péguy Luyindula. How much does Henry, in the last season of his contract, have left in the tank? How will New York handle the CONCACAF Champions League? Will it ever overcome its MLS Cup playoff jitters?

This season won’t be without its challenges, but at least “it’s an easy start for us,” Red Bulls GM Jérôme de Bontin said.

“Going into the draft with a coach who’s been successful, someone who’s American, who knows the lay of the land, who had good contact with college coaches, I think we’re much better prepared,” he told SI.com’s Grant Wahl. “We have a much better vision of where we’ll be at the end of preseason and obviously we have a great ambition for the year, building on what was done last year with the hope of doing even better.”

Rumors will continue to surround the Red Bulls, of course.

“We’re owned by a company that has a lot of money and has a lot of ambition,” Petke said.

There’s room for a third DP, and it’s hard to imagine New York standing pat while rivals like Toronto FC up the ante in the Eastern Conference. But Petke pledged that he’ll green light a summer signing only if the player fits in. In the past, it seemed the club preferred players who stood out.

“And how many times did they get it right? A handful, but not always,” Petke said.

“Right now, I need a right back, but I don’t think we’ll be spending millions of dollars on a DP at right back,” Petke joked. “Of course, we always talk about creativity, a creative midfielder that would be nice to have. But then that changes the way we play, because right now we’re pretty much playing out of a flat 4-4-2. You have to see how the season starts, how it goes. We didn’t go shopping for a big DP last year. We could have, but we didn’t feel like we had to. Because Toronto’s doing something, that’s great, but the Red Bulls aren’t just going to do something to keep up with them. If we feel we need to get a player or a player fits with us, we’ll get him.”

A confident coach and 23 players remain from last year’s team. At Red Bull Arena, continuity signals the beginning of a new era.

“We’re on the right track and we like where we’re at,” Petke said. “We’re just tidying up some things and getting ready for the season.”

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