If at first you don't succeed, don't succeed again
Last week, the New York Red Bulls sent a full-reserve team out to Montreal where they battled to a 1-0 loss. It could have been much worse: L'Impact missed some good chances. More troublingly, RBNY didn't generate many chances other than the occasional set piece opportunity.
A big part of the problem: the 4-2-3-1. The formation has worked very well in league play for Mike Petke, when he deploys the players it was designed to support.
In Montreal, the problem was largely the "1" in the formation: Saer Sene may yet do wonderful things for this team, but they are unlikely to be in the role of lone forward. He isn't quick enough to break an offside trap, and offers little threat in the air. By the time he was subbed out of the Montreal game, he had retreated to right wing and Ruben Bover was playing up front.
Against CD FAS, in a must-win game, Mike Petke looked back at the events in Montreal and concluded, "we should try that again."
Sene was no more effective up front in El Salvador than he had been in Canada. Bover replaced him and looked an awful lot like an energetic midfielder trying to imitate the movement and technique of a goal scorer - which is exactly what he is in that position.
The lesson of very recent history wasn't learned, the Red Bulls didn't score for the second CCL game in a row, and they are out of the tournament as a result.
Where was Tim Cahill?
Petke did throw quite a few first-teamers into the mix for this match. Ambroise Oyongo, Peguy Luyindula and Lloyd Sam comprised the attacking three - and that would be an entirely reasonable set up for the team in any situation where Thierry Henry wasn't fit to play.
Chris Duvall stepped in at right back. Dax McCarty was brought in to partner Ian Christianson in the defensive midfield tandem, This was a not a weak team at all. The second-stringers in the starting lineup - even Sene - were deserving of their places.
But in a must-win game, the imperative is to score goals. And while many coaches may not start their best players against weaker opposition, most will keep some firepower in reserve in case it is needed.
On this very night in CCL, D.C. United sent out a reserve team, but had Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola on the bench (Johnson scored in the second half). Pachuca had its leading scorers - Matias Alustiza and Hirving Lozano - among its substitutes. Leon, whose situation most closely resembled RBNY's (at least a point was needed to stay alive in the competition), threw Carlos Pena into CCL for the first time in the tournament when it became clear even a strong team wasn't quite sufficient to break Herediano (too little, too late for Leon, as it turned out).
For RBNY, the only first-teamer on the bench was Eric Alexander.
Tim Cahill started against CD FAS when the teams played at Red Bull Arena. That was RBNY's first game of the tournament and the objective was to run up the score. It didn't work out, but if Cahill was worth deploying for the first game of CCL, why wasn't he worth bringing to what was, effectively, the Red Bulls' last match in this year's competition?
Cahill was on the bench for the preceding league game against Seattle, and only played the last 30 minutes or so. He'd run through a wall for this team, and he appears to have never played a game he doesn't want to win. Why wasn't he in the squad in El Salvador?
It's all on the playoffs now
We know the answer to all the questions that will be thrown at Mike Petke about this game, even if he never comes out and says it, because it is the only answer that has applied to any of the various disappointments throughout the season: got to keep the team fresh and focused on the playoffs.
When the Supporters' Shield and Eastern Conference titles stopped seeming like realistic goals (which was alarmingly early in the year), there was at least US Open Cup, CCL and the playoffs to look forward to.
When US Open Cup got thrown on the bonfire, there was at least still CCL and the playoffs to think about.
Now CCL is gone. We know why. We can see the difficult choices Petke has had to make as it became clear that his squad's depth was diminished, not strengthened, by the team's off-season moves. We have watched this team struggle to find itself, slowly figure out how to play to its strengths and cover its weaknesses.
And now there is only one thing left to play for: the thing we have effectively been playing for all season - the MLS playoffs. There are no excuses left. No distractions. No more reason to even pretend to be concerned about juggling multiple competitions.
Fans are greedy: we want to win ALL the games, see our team lift ALL the trophies. But a coach must be pragmatic, must accept the limitations of his squad and try to get the best possible outcome with what he's got. The best players cannot play every game, and even the best players don't play well all the time.
So fans are often at odds with their club: disgusted by apparent lack of effort or ambition. We'll get over it.
When the dust settles on this ignominious exit from the region's biggest tournament, the fans will be unanimously aligned with the club's objectives for perhaps the first time this season. There is only one thing left that RBNY can win this year: so let's go win it.