Thomas B. Shea

Jamison Olave suspension leaves back-line hole, but Red Bulls have faith in replacements

HOUSTON – Heading into a do-or-die match on home turf, the New York Red Bulls have a massive hole to fill.

The Red Bulls will be without veteran center back Jamison Olave for the final leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday because of the red card he received in the second half of Sunday’s wild 2-2 draw at BBVA Compass Stadium. Olave was sent off in the 65th minute for a slide tackle on Omar Cummings that seemed more reckless than malicious.

Olave’s absence not only leaves New York without one of their most influential players, but also missing the defensive anchor that brings an unmatched combination of speed, strength and savvy to the squad. It also leaves the club hoping to snap an unflattering streak, as they are 0-3-2 in games Olave has missed this year.

Damning numbers aside, head coach Mike Petke and his players expressed plenty of confidence in the team’s ability to replace Olave in Wednesday night’s make-or-break match at Red Bull Arena (8 pm ET, MSG pre-game show at 7:30).

“He’s been our starter all year, but we have guys that need to step up in a big way on Wednesday," Petke said. "Yeah, it’s a big loss, but we’ll deal with it.”

“It’s a loss, but we’ve got great players. We’ve got great players, good depth in squad and we just have to get on with it,” said midfielder Tim Cahill, who scored the opener and assisted on Eric Alexander’s second. “For us, this is football. I’m not too fazed about Wednesday, because I know we’re going to give them a tough test at home and be ready to go again.”

Petke is not one to reveal his hand before a game, but it is essentially a foregone conclusion that his two starting center backs on Wednesday will be Markus Holgersson and Ibrahim Sekagya.

Holgersson has been playing at right back in recent weeks, but Olave’s absence should see the Swede move in to his normal central spot, just as he did in Sunday’s second half. That move will leave right back open for either Brandon Barklage or Kosuke Kimura, and it allows New York to field two experienced players at center back.

“We’re looking forward for Wednesday,” said Holgersson before providing an example in which his partnership with Sekagya was impressive. “You saw against Seattle [in September’s 1-1 road draw] when me and Ibra played at center back, we did it really well. We hope to get back to that.”

As for where the Red Bulls stood on the matter of Olave’s ejection, Sunday's aftermath included mixed reviews. Olave did not speak to the media, and several players who did followed Petke’s lead and were largely noncommittal on the topic.

Holgersson said he felt Olave's tackle was similar to a Houston tackle in the first half, but both Cahill and Dax McCarty confirmed they saw the play as a red card.

“The [challenge that resulted in the] red card I think is unnecessary as well,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “Clear red card.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.

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