On May 24, 2014, the New York Red Bulls found a new right back. His name is Chris Duvall, and he was the 22nd overall pick of the 2014 SuperDraft - the Red Bulls' first of the proceedings. He made his first professional start against the Portland Timbers, in the hospitable surroundings of his home stadium, Red Bull Arena.
Duvall played a pretty good game: minimal mistakes (his diciest moment was late in the first half, when he missed a clearance and handed Steve Zakuani a shot on goal, which Lloyd Sam just managed to divert over the bar), looked solid in one-on-ones, positionally astute, and well capable of getting forward on the counter. He deserves another start, and that's as much as one can ask of anyone just starting their career in professional soccer.
Unfortunately for Duvall, his decent debut was just about the most positive thing to emerge from this particular match. RBNY lost 2-1. This makes it three consecutive losses for the suddenly plummeting Red Bulls, and the second example of a troubling trend: losing while playing well at home.
Lest we forget, the home team did play well. In the opening 15 minutes, RBNY had at least six good chances to score. A byline cross from Jonny Steele found Eric Alexander in the 3rd minute, but his header was too high. A minute later, Steele tried an ambitious chip from distance, which cost Donovan Ricketts an anxious scramble backwards while the ball drifted just wide. A couple of minutes after that, Alexander was in the box with the ball at his feet, but he took a heavy touch and lost possession, launching a Portland counter-attack.
Barely two minutes after that sequence, Thierry Henry was streaking up the field, slipping the ball to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who embarrassed Pa Modou Kah with a this-way-now-that-way double turn and fired a left foot shot off the far post. The rebound worked its way out to Lloyd Sam, whose shot forced Ricketts into a desperation save. BWP was offside when Sam's shot was taken, and his simple tap-in was rightfully called back.
Still, the Red Bulls weren't done terrorizing Timbers. In the 12th minute, Sam essayed his "Lloyd Sam chop", fooled three defenders, and curled a left-footed shot wide.
Six scoring chances in the opening 12 minutes is impressive work. Nor did it end there. The Timbers had their opportunities - most notably in the 25th minute, when Luis Robles's anticipation was all that prevented Maxi Urruti from getting a cross across the face of goal - but the only thing even about the first half was the score.
RBNY finally broke through in the 35th minute. Henry fed Lloyd Sam in the box with his back to goal. Sam tried to BWP Kah, twisting one way before changing direction, but his touch let him down and he lost the ball.
Fortunately, Kah was apparently more interested in the man than the ball. With an arm around Sam, he ably handled the situation, getting in a clearance, but you play a dangerous game when you start physically restraining opponents in the penalty area. Kah lost balance, dragged Sam down with him, and conceded one of the more straightforward penalties of this penalty-riddled season.
BWP converted from the spot, and perhaps the Red Bulls were on their way. Yet another close call - Raushawn McKenzie almost glanced a cross into his net, forcing Ricketts into an uncomfortable save - underscored the home team's attacking prowess.
But the chances weren't being taken. The lack of finishing caught up with RBNY before the half-time whistle. In the 45th minute, Maxi Urruti was allowed space to shoot from outside the area, and his shot glanced off Armando, wrong-footing Robles and bouncing into goal.
It was a familiar story for the 2014 Red Bulls: playing well all the way up to the final third, but unable to convert the chances created, and always willing to let an opponent back into the game.
The story got worse in the second half.
Again, RBNY rained chances on Portland's goal. A clever free kick from Henry opened the second half, and might have been a goal, if Dax McCarty hadn't been held back, or a penalty, if the referee had seen Dax being restrained. Eric Alexander had a point blank shot blocked by Ben Zemanski about a minute later. BWP chipped into Ricketts's fingertips shortly after that, and then another canny Henry free kick forced a panicked save out of the 'keeper, and BWP followed Alexander's return shot into the net.
But the goal was called back for offside - a call that looked wrong to this observer, but at least it was flagged early and with confidence.
The Red Bulls appeared a little more subdued after that incident, though this was mostly owed to referee Drew Fischer. Will Johnson rugby-tackled Henry in the 57th minute, and perhaps the brazen nature of the foul (Johnson looked like he knew he was committing a tactical foul of the sort likely to get a card and decided to make sure it counted; not in a nasty or violent way, just brutally effective) shocked Fischer into the ensuing caution spree, in which he issued five cards in 15 minutes.
The fouls ranged from the imagined (Urruti sold a dive to get Olave booked) to the reckless (Lloyd Sam lunged at a lost cause and hacked Johnson down) to the scarcely-worth-a-mention (Armando put a hand on Darlington Nagbe; McKenzie clipped Steele as he ran past him).
The fluency of the match was disrupted, and RBNY never really regained its rhythm. The Timbers, however, had been living off the staccato of the counter-attack all game, and grabbed the go-ahead goal in the 74th minute. Jorge Villafana's cross evaded everyone in the six yard box (except perhaps Armando's arm) and fell to Urruti, who threaded his shot through a cluster of players into the net.
It was exactly the sort of goal RBNY's panic-prone defense has been vulnerable to all season: a couple of missed interceptions resulting in a shot on goal, and it's all down to whether Robles can make the save. This sort of thing happens in every game, but it happens to RBNY more often than other MLS 'keepers. Literally: he has currently faced more shots (and therefore, unsurprisingly, made more saves) than any other goalkeeper in the league. (This may change if Houston take a shelling in San Jose, since Tally Hall has similar difficulties with his defenders.)
Petke's game management is going to take a beating after this match, but we shouldn't forget how he threw the team into all-out attack against Chicago, and he appeared similarly inspired to grasp the nettle on this occasion. Ruben Bover came on for Jonny Steele almost immediately after the goal was scored, providing fresh legs to bolster the chase for a goal.
Steele might not have been everyone's choice for the first substitution, but the coach was unquestionably acting decisively to get his team back into the game. Bover plays a little bit like Alexander - inclined to take a touch too many, or look for the safe pass rather than the threatening one - but he played well in the time he was allowed, setting up RBNY's last best chance of the match: an 84th minute sequence that saw Henry have two shots blocked and BWP sky one over the bar.
Unfortunately, Petke did not feel the need for any further changes until the 90th minute, by which point his substitutions were serving Caleb Porter's priority - time-wasting - rather than that of RBNY. Bafflingly, the second substitution was Kosuke Kimura for Alexander: an out-of-favor right back for the man tasked with filling Peguy Luyindula's shoes in the lineup (Luyindula is still injured and missed this match).
With the Timbers increasingly satisfied to hang back and clog the middle, RBNY's obvious riposte would have been to push men forward, and perhaps bring out a big man to occupy the center backs. Petke did reach for that particular club in the bag, but Andre Akpan arrived on the field as the stoppage-time board went up, and he replaced BWP, so there was no great additional pressure on the defense - just a greater size of Red Bull forward rather than greater number.
Hindsight is wonderful. It is, of course, obvious to everyone including Petke that his tactics weren't effective: the team lost. Just as it had lost the prior two matches. And it is harsh to say his tactics weren't effective: RBNY was manifestly the better team up until the point when it wasn't, i.e. when the Timbers scored their second goal.
If Petke had thrown on three subs in five minutes, adjusted to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, and RBNY had still lost, we wouldn't be criticizing his lack of action, we'd be saying he was too quick to change a team that had been outplaying its opponent for most of the game.
So while the lack of substitutions was baffling and frustrating, it is explicable. Petke's motivating principles as a coach so far in his career appear to be loyalty and pragmatism. He identifies his best players, puts them in what he considers to be the best formation for their talents, and gives them opportunity to redeem themselves if they make a mistake.
This approach was forged out of the chaos of last year, when Petke was appointed head coach primarily because he was the ONLY coach on the club's books when preseason started. He did a remarkable job to not only make the Red Bulls competitive and survive the apparent mutiny of a star player (Juninho was not, we are told, a Petke fan), but also to make this whatever-works approach win more points in the regular season than any other team in the league.
Now he faces the first major test of his short career in management. The team has lost three in a row, having started the season with a six-game winless streak. Three wins and a draw between those two events is fast looking like the exception to what is becoming a rule of sub-par finishing, shaky defending, and an unrealistic expectation that the goalkeeper or a red-hot striker will compensate for the many, many mistakes the team is making.
Last year, the team never went more than four games without a win, and suffered consecutive losses only once. Of course, it doesn't matter what order points are won or lost, just the total at the end of the season. This is convenient, because things may get worse before they get better.
The next two games, which will take RBNY to almost the halfway point of its season, look ominous. Sporting Kansas City is banged up and tired, but so too is RBNY - and KC at least gets to play in front of its home crowd.
After that, the Red Bulls head to New England, to play the hottest team in the league, without Tim Cahill, Roy Miller, probably Jonny Steele, certainly Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave (if you think things are bad now, consider losing either of those players to a turf-related injury for a month or so), and possibly even Peguy Luyindula (whose injury may or may not allow him to tangle with the turf in Foxborough).
But if a season in MLS is less about winning the Supporters' Shield and more about winning MLS Cup, then there is no reason to worry about what lies ahead in the short-term. This team is in no great danger of competing for the Supporters' Shield at the moment.
Perhaps this is the plan: get the regular season trophy out of reach early, and back the team into a corner it can only get out of by laying waste to all challengers in the Fall.