Craving playing time after being seldom used in 2013, Andre Akpan could have opted to find a new club this offseason.
He chose familiarity instead.
Minimized in last week’s news of the Red Bulls’ addition of Bobby Convey was the club signing Akpan to a new deal. Part of that was because Akpan was not a regular in New York’s lineup in 2013, playing just 127 minutes in seven appearances in his first year with the squad, but that looks set to change next season as the Red Bulls know they will play at least 39 games and hope for a number closer to 45.
Those opportunities played a large part in Akpan's decision to rejoin Mike Petke’s side instead of entering the Re-Entry Draft as an out-of-contract player.
“That was a big reason why I wanted to come back,” Akpan, 26, told MLSsoccer.com. “We’re going to have more games because of [CONCACAF] Champions League, obviously [Thierry] Henry is getting another year older, and it’s Mike’s second year and he’s going to be a little more comfortable with how he rotates the squad. Absolutely, it’s a big transition to go and just try to start fresh with another team, and I think that having a full preseason with this team will help me a lot and will help me really kind of establish myself.”
Akpan, who scored 10 Reserve League goals in as many games after arriving in New York from Colorado via trade early in the 2013 season, never doubted he would return to the Red Bulls. The club reached out to him almost immediately after the season ended to begin working on a new contract. It took some time, but the two parties eventually struck an accord.
“Right away they told me that they wanted me back, and I wanted to be back, so with me out of contract it was just a matter of us coming to an agreement on something,” said Akpan. “Obviously, that process takes a little while, and I’m glad we got it sorted out.”
Akpan should also be glad about a confession Petke made late last week. Petke told reporters via a conference call last Friday that he felt he played it relatively safe when it came to lineup decisions during his rookie campaign and added that things will be “very different” in that regard in 2014 for a number of reasons. That bodes well for Akpan, whose role should increase given that Henry will need more rest and that Fabian Espindola is not currently under contract.
“It was important to bring someone like Andre back,” said Petke. “He’s a phenomenal person to start with. He has a lot of good qualities on the field: He’s a big body, he gives us that option up front as we saw in New England [in a 1-1 draw on May 11] when he started and played a lot of the game that he can be the big front guy to win head balls, hold the ball up. I had a lot of conversations with Andre and things he needs to work on, and that’s partly his responsibility, that’s partly myself and the coaching staff’s responsibility to guide him in the right direction, which we will, along with Tim [Cahill], along with a number of other players. To have a player like [Akpan] back, I think he’s going to have a good second year with us this year, getting significant minutes in whatever competition he’s able to get into.”
While it seems unlikely that Akpan breaks into the starting lineup ahead of Cahill or fellow forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, he is determined to make the decision tough on Petke. That is why Akpan is already planning to have offseason workouts at his alma mater, Harvard University, in January in order to prepare for a new year that will likely come with ample opportunity.
“I’m very excited for it,” Akpan said. “Obviously, there are a lot of games, but I want to push to be playing every regular-season game, and obviously that’s a tall order, but I think I can do it, and I think the coaches have confidence in me to step up as well.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.