Where Will Tim Cahill Fit In?

A quick piece on Tim Cahill’s move to the New York Red Bulls…

The guy who punches corner flags is coming to MLS. That may be a reductive way to present Tim Cahill’s underrated talent, but it’s the line that New York Red Bulls fans have immediately latched onto. The LA Galaxy have a cartwheeling, machine-gun-blasting Irishman up front. Now the New York faithful, too, can enjoy an unorthodox celebration.

The Red Bulls, who currently sit atop the Eastern Conference, have already done a lot of celebrating this season: they’re Major League Soccer’s second-most prolific team behind the San Jose Earthquakes, and, in Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper, they boast two of the league’s most efficient marksmen. New York are famous for their attack-oriented style, a zesty playing philosophy that ignores one of the fundamentals of modern football – defending. They’ve conceded 29 goals this season, more than any other team in the Eastern Conference’s top six. Nevertheless, the Red Bulls remain one of the favorites for this year’s MLS Cup.

Tim Cahill adds to an attack already packed with star quality. After losing Luke Rodgers in the offseason, New York coach Hans Backe signed Kenny Cooper, a former United States international, from the Portland Timbers. And, just a couple of weeks ago, Backe traded fan favorite Dane Richards to the Vancouver Whitecaps in exchange for Sebastian Le Toux, yet another striker.

With such a vast array of riches available to him, it’s no wonder that Backe hasn’t settled on an attacking formation. Henry – who, as New York’s brand-name player, is guaranteed a starting spot – partnered Cooper in attack for most of the first half of the year. When Le Toux arrived, however, Backe shifted Henry into a trequarista, or “number 10,” position behind the two forwards for a home game against Seattle. That approach wasn’t particularly successful, so Backe continued to experiment – first dropping Cooper altogether, then moving Le Toux to the wing, in another attempt to accommodate all three players.

Somehow, Backe will have to fit Cahill, who can play as a traditional number nine or just behind the main center forward, into that attacking muddle. A week and a half ago, Cooper was enduring a lengthy goal drought, and relegating him to the bench might have seemed a practical solution. Last weekend, however, he scored a cathartic brace in a vital win over the Philadelphia Union, one of the Red Bulls’ archrivals.

How Backe will ultimately adjust his starting lineup is anyone’s guess. But we can be sure the already peripheral Mehdi Ballouchy, an attacking midfielder, will have to make do with even fewer minutes of playing time. Ballouchy joined the Red Bulls from the Colorado Rapids in 2010, but he has failed to establish himself as a starter.

Even if Tim Cahill’s arrival creates tactical problems, it represents another positive step for the New York Red Bulls and for Major League Soccer as a whole. The evolution of football in the United States requires high-quality domestic competition; Cahill – as well as Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio, who both joined MLS from Serie A earlier this summer – will further enhance an improving league.

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