HARRISON, N.J.-- Mike Petke hasn't had much to smile about in 2014. Coming off a Supporters' Shield-winning season with the New York Red Bulls last year, Petke has had to stand by and watch his Red Bulls underwhelm and underperform through a season-opening six match winless skid.
John Hackworth's ride through the first month of the new MLS season has been a bit different. He has watched his revamped Philadelphia Union squad play some of the best soccer in MLS thanks to the outstanding play of new acquisitions Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu, among others, but defensive breakdowns and poor finishing have kept the Union from fully capitalizing on the quality soccer they've been able to play.
Only one of them was able to watch their team deliver something different when the Red Bulls faced the Union on Wednesday, and it was Petke's side snapping out of its season-opening funk while the Union continued on a frustrating start to the season.
"Let's be honest here. We are seven games into the season and we're without a win, but with only two losses though, so obviously there is some tension within myself," Petke said after Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Union. "I wouldn't call it outright pressure, but this is New York and this is the Red Bulls. Everyone who has been around this team long enough knows the pressure I put on myself.
"So yeah, you saw a lot of relief after that second goal went in because the way things have been going this year a one-goal lead is not good enough," Petke added. "So there's a sense of relief. It's a bit of a monkey off the back."
While Petke was savoring his first coaching victory in more than five months, Hackworth was left trying to understand how his team could continue to make defensive errors while also failing to capitalize on the possession advantage generated by Philly's impressive midfield.
"Not only did we let them off the hook, but we should have had them in the second half too," Hackworth said. "They were going to get a chance. You can't leave a guy like Henry open on the field. He's just deadly. He has been his whole career.
"It's very frustrating to play as well as we did in some aspects of that game, and then be down 2-0."
The Union have held the possession edge in most of its matches in 2014, but that hasn't translated to results. In part because of an inability to close out games by scoring insurance goals, and also because defensive breakdowns have continued to cost the team points, like they did on Wednesday night.
"The part that we have right is so much harder to get right than the part we can't get right," Hackworth said, referring to his team's impressive passing and possession, but shaky defending. "The part where we're talking about these defensive things. You guys have seen it. The guys that have been out there before have previously done a really good job.
"I don't know what to say besides we have to get that sorted out."
Where the Red Bulls were able to improve on previous outings was in finishing chances, and the play of Eric Alexander in midfield was a key catalyst in creating the chances the Red Bulls converted on Wednesday. A utility midfielder who has seen time at every midfield position in the Red Bulls attack, Alexander looked very good playing on the left flank. He combined well with Roy Miller on Henry's opening goal, and he provided the cross that Lloyd Sam headed home for the eventual game-winner.
Alexander was able to provide creativity in midfield, which has been lacking for the Red Bulls this season.
"I love Eric with the ball this season. I do," Petke said. "I think he's an intelligent player. I think he needs a couple more things to make that jump. Perhaps it's a bit of confidence as well. He has proven that he could be almost like a Tim Cahill last year, where you can play him at two or three different positions."
If there was a major difference between the Union and Red Bulls on Wednesday, it was the presence of Henry, who delivered the opening goal and gave the Union problems throughout the match.
"On a play like that, where we literally got pulled apart and leave the most dangerous guy in the league wide open is baffling," Hackworth said.
"There's a reason why he is called the Designated Player, and there's a reason why he's played with all those teams he's played on," Petke said. "Big players come up at big times. He took that goal very well and set it up, and set the tone for us."
As happy as Petke was with his team after Wednesday's win, Hackworth was unhappy with almost every part of his squad. Not only relating to the team's defensive breakdowns, but also his attack's inability to generate chances, particularly in the final 10 minutes, when the Union had a man advantage after an Ibrahim Sekagya red card.
"I cannot even tell you how frustrating it was," Hackworth said when asked about his team's lack of chances late. "That's where even though we worked on those kind of situations in preseason, the fact we didn't get the ball served in the box, especially when we put (Aaron) Wheeler up there, I'm literally just baffled because that's not the way we trained it.
"I don't even know what to say. It's just frustrating," Hackworth said. "Our whole setup in that last 10 minutes was baffling."
The Red Bulls will have some time to savor Wednesday's victory. They don't return to action until next Wednesday against Houston at Red Bull Arena.
As for the Union, Hackworth's squad won't have much time to dwell on its second loss of the season. Up next is a home game at PPL Park against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday.
- Sports & Recreation
- New York Red Bulls
- John Hackworth
- Mike Petke