Success means more games, more opportunities for Red Bulls in 2014

Mike Petke enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful first season as Red Bulls head coach, but one of the areas in which he hopes to improve – successfully rotating his players in and out of the lineup – is perhaps the one that will be tested most next year.

As Supporters’ Shield champions, the Red Bulls will compete in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League (their second appearance in the regional championship), which means four mid-week games added to the schedule during the pressure-packed final three months of the season.

“I have to get better at managing playing minutes and rotating more,” Petke said on a Wednesday conference call with the local media. “You can’t argue that what we did this year worked in the regular season, with where we ended up. Obviously with more competitions next year, we’re going to have to figure a different course of action as far as playing minutes.”

The Red Bulls will be drawn into a three-team group that will include either the Canadian champion or a Central American champion as one opponent and either a Central American club or Caribbean club as the other. Only the winner of the four-game round robin will advance to the quarterfinals, held in the spring of 2015.

Those four games in 2014 mean that before the calendar has even hit December 2013, the Red Bulls are guaranteed next year to play the most games since Petke’s third year with the team back in 2000. That club played 41 games thanks to a semifinal run in the U.S. Open Cup and the old best-of-three playoff series. Next year’s team will play at least 39 games in all competitions, and that total could rise as high as 48 with the right combination of results. The table below right illustrates how the Red Bulls' 2014 campaign could compare to other busy seasons in club history, using both the minimum and maximum number of games:

2014 (max.) 34 6 4 4 48
2000 32 5 4 0 41
2014 (min.) 34 0 1 4 39
2011 34 3 2 0 39
2012, 2013 34 2 2 8 38
2003, 2010 30 2 4 0 36

In New York's other forays into international competition - the 2001 Copa Merconorte and the 2009-10 CONCACAF Champions League - their seasons have totaled 34 competitive games, and the club failed to advance in international competition.

Numerous MLS clubs have faced this multiple-competition conundrum since the Champions League moved to a group-stage format beginning in 2008-09, and Petke admits it will force some difficult decisions.

“With the Champions League, we have four things to shoot for,” Petke said, referencing the regional title, the MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and the Open Cup. “It’s going to be an interesting dynamic next year with revolving players and figuring out what our goals are. Obviously, it’d be easy to say our goals are all four of them, but we might have to sacrifice one or two to attain one goal, and that’s something that we’ve been talking about.”

Whatever the priorities end up being, one of the benefits is likely to be more competitive minutes for New York’s young players. The Red Bulls had eight players aged 23 or younger this season, including four Homegrown players, and those eight combined for only 376 regular-season minutes. However, both Connor Lade and Ryan Meara played regular roles in 2012, and many of this year’s youngsters are likely to see additional playing time next year.

“I think that the young guys have done well,” Petke said while citing a first MLS start for 24-year-old Michael Bustamante, the professional debut of Matt Miazga, and the strong training of Ruben Bover and Marius Obekop. “With all the competitions next year, I’d be surprised if I didn’t dig very deep into my roster, specifically with the young Academy boys – I think it would be foolish not to.”