Mike Petke wasn’t messing around in the Red Bulls’ first CONCACAF Champions League match since 2009.
The head coach picked a veteran starting XI Tuesday night for New York’s opening group-stage match against Club Deportivo Futbolistas Asociados Santanecos of El Salvador – better known as FAS – and the gamble paid off, as New York cruised to a 2-0 victory.
While Petke did omit Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave from of the matchday squad, he said that he wanted to make sure that the Red Bulls would take all three points in a competition some MLS teams have taken lightly in the past.
“I really wanted to put out an experienced and strong squad that I think we could win with and there was never a doubt that we could win with this squad,” he said in his post-match press conference. I do feel bad for the younger guys who I couldn’t get in because I think they deserve it, but at the end of the day you have to make tough decisions and I felt like we need to go with a bit more experience.”
Petke handed Red Bull Saer Sene his first start with his new team and the towering striker made the most of his opportunity in the 11th minute. Tim Cahill deftly headed a pinpoint cross from Ambroise Oyongo over to the Frenchman. He controlled the ball with his left foot, and, slammed home his first goal with a rocket left-foot strike past FAS goalie Adolfo Menendez.
The Red Bulls continued to create numerous chances, but they left were left frustrated by missed opportunities in front of goal. It wasn’t until the 70th minute when the home side finally felt safe, after Lloyd Sam put the game away with New York’s second goal, a well-taken strike after being played in on goal by Peguy Luyindula.
Cahill – who was the stand-in captain in place of Henry – lauded the attitude from his teammates and the effort from some of the squad players who called upon to play.
“It was a tricky game where we had to be disciplined,” the Australian international said to the media after the match. “Basically we said we had to have a little pride in our performance. Some players were playing for a position [in the team] and it’s a good competition, so it’s not really a second team. … The most important thing was to try and make a statement, to continue to win games regardless of who’s playing.”
It’s not easy to play against a team you know little about, but Petke and his coaching staff were able to take advantage of weaknesses in FAS’ formation through excellent scouting and video work.
The 17th-time champions of El Salvador’s first division lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, which played right into New York’s hands. The Red Bulls unleashed Sam and Oyongo down the flanks on the counterattack and the wingers obliterated FAS’ two wingbacks who were pushed way too high up the field.
“Our whole game plan [Tuesday] for them on the road here was to exploit the wings. That was 100 percent in scouting,” Petke said. “For someone like Lloyd, this was a game designed for him and also Oyongo who’s very excitable out there.
FAS’ three defenders were all diminutive compared to the 6-foot-3 Sene and an aerial bombardment from the wide areas was always going to be the idea. With the aerial proficiency of Cahill alongside Sene, the strategy was destined to be a success.
“Everything seemed to work pretty well,” Sam said. “The game plan [was] to get wide and get crosses in. … I knew when I was out wide and just loft in there for [Sene and Cahill] and they seemed to win every ball.
The Red Bulls were encouraged by the full debut of Saer Sene, as the Frenchman started in tandem with Cahill up front. Acquired in a trade with the New England Revolution on Aug. 14, Sene showed promise of what he could bring to the Red Bulls’ attack: a target man up with good ball skills and the ability to disrupt a defense with his physicality.
He scored his first goal against FAS early on, and, while he missed some gilt-edged opportunities that came to him later, he was still pleased with his first start.
“It’s just a great feeling as a striker, “Sene said. “For me, it’s been a long [time] that I didn’t play [because of injury] but to get back on the field, to play 90 [minutes], and score, it’s a great debut for me but it’s just the start.
Petke hopes to get Sene fully fit within a week and like the combination of Sene and Cahill up front.
“I think the more minutes he gets in a game and the more practice time he gets he’ll be more comfortable. I think at times you could tell he and Tim clicked [Tuesday], and at times you could tell they’ve never really played together before, but that’s going to take time and patience. For me, I’m excited to have Saer here, I was very happy, it was very important that he got a goal [Tuesday] and open that account here with us, but also to feel comfortable and feel confident.
A LOOK AHEAD: AT DC UNITED
The Red Bulls’ road to the playoffs heads down to the nation’s capital this weekend, as New York takes on East-leading DC United at RFK Stadium Sunday.
It’s a classic rivalry game and the Red Bulls know DC United will be up for it. The home side is 8-3-2 at RFK, while New York has been a rather pedestrian 2-6-5 away from Red Bull Arena . Former Red Bull Fabian Espindola leads DC United with nine goals and will no doubt want to prove something to his former side.
The Red Bulls currently sit in fifth place – the final playoff spot in the East – with a one-point lead over New England and Philadelphia.