In the middle of the first half of the Red Bulls' must-win (didn't-win) play-off game against Montreal Impact, Sacha Kljestan came out of the game with a broken nose. He didn't know it was broken at the time, but he knew he couldn't keep playing with blood "coming down my throat". So he went to the sideline for treatment and RBNY played on with 10 men. For more than 10 minutes.
Eventually, Sacha came back. Playing with a broken nose and two pieces of gauze jammed in to stop the bleeding, He was unable to create chances against a bunkered defense. He later admitted that he was having trouble breathing. For those watching from the stands, it was clear that Kljestan was hampered.
And it was also unnecessary. Yes, Sacha is a senior player for the New York Red Bulls, and a vital part of the team's attacking set-up. Yes, he is the set-piece-taker-in-chief and the primary midfield playmaker. But the Red Bulls did have a better option than 50-odd minutes of busted-and-bleeding Sacha, and they certainly had a better option than 10+ minutes of no Sacha at all.
Sitting on the bench was Sean Davis, regarded by many as the future of the Red Bulls midfield and, in theory, being actively groomed for that role by the club. For a seven-game stretch this season, Davis was a full-time starter in the RBNY midfield. Seven games that were part of the Red Bulls' 20-game unbeaten run. While, the medical staff worked at patching Sacha up on the sidelines, Jesse Marsch sent Davis to warm up. In the end, however, Marsch didn't pull the trigger. Davis sat, as he had done for 13 regular-season games; mostly because it wasn't absolutely necessary for him to play, which has tended to be the circumstance in which he gets any time at all.
In 2016, Davis was in the squad for all 34 of the Red Bulls' regular-season games. His playing in time in MLS increased significantly, from 431 minutes in 2015 to 1108 minutes this year. That looks a lot like a vote of confidence in the player and a clear sign that he is growing to the starting role expected of him. But a closer look at those numbers reveals something different: when given a choice Jesse Marsch was more comfortable with Davis on the bench than on the field.
The 1108 regular-season minutes that Davis played this year were spread over 21 games: 11 starts; 10 substitute appearances. Of the 11 starts, seven were in that stretch when club captain Dax McCarty had a broken leg. Two were as cover for an absent Kljestan (international duty) and Felipe (suspension), respectively. And the other two starts came in mid-week games when several key starters were rested. Of the 10 substitute appearances he made, two were out of absolute necessity: as a replacement for an injured Dax McCarty, and as part of a tactical adjustment necessitated by Felipe being sent off.
So how many of Davis' 1108 minutes were in situations where Jesse's hand wasn't forced by the fact one of the starting midfield trio wasn't available? 56: a little bit more than one half.
After holding down a starting midfield place in Dax's absence for seven games, what Davis' reward? One minute in the last six games. Zero minutes in the playoffs, including zero minutes in a must-win game against Montreal. As it happens, one of the most significant contributions Davis made all season was a goal and an assist in a 3-1 home win over Montreal. But when Kljestan took a knock in the playoffs, an empty space on the field and patched-up playmaker for the second half proved preferable to a fully-fit Davis.
But for Dax's injury, Davis' 2016 was remarkably similar to his rookie season. Last year, he was mostly a (very) late-game sub, picking up 90 of his 431 minutes in MLS from 10 substitute appearances. The rest came from four starts. This year, he had seven more appearances in MLS than he did in 2015. They were all starts: the games for which Dax was injured. After that, it was back to the bench and he would see just one more minute in MLS all season.
Jesse simply did not rotate Davis into the midfield. If he was not on the field when the game kicked off, Marsch was not likely to bring him on. Yes, Davis got four starts in CONCACAF Champions League - but three of those were during McCarty's injury-enforced absence. And he got zero minutes in the post-season, just like last year.
Davis is not the only developing player Jesse has left on the bench. Indeed, of the Red Bulls' top prospects, he is one of the luckier ones. He is a viable replacement for at least three senior starters, and so he does get chances to see the field in the absence of either McCarty, Kljestan, or Felipe.
With one notable exception, this year's rookies didn't see nearly as much time as Davis did last year in his first season with RBNY. Derrick Etienne got four minutes in his single MLS appearance of 2016. Brandon Allen did three minutes better, clocking seven minutes in his only league appearance. Tyler Adams made a single mid-week start in April, put in 45 minutes and never saw another minute in MLS for the year. Justin Bilyeu got to appear in three MLS games. He had one start that brought 90 minutes, and a total of 27 minutes off the bench in the other two games.
Between them, those four rookies clocked 173 minutes in MLS. Davis got 431 in his rookie year.
Alex Muyl is, of course, the exception. He broke into the starting lineup and racked up a total of 1599 minutes over 27 regular-season appearances, including 18 starts. That is more MLS time than Davis has seen in his RBNY career to date (1539 minutes). But before he became an everyday starter, his story was similar to the rest: in his nine substitute appearances, he totaled 135 minutes - and 36 of those were in the 7-0 trouncing of NYCFC, when Jesse Marsch threw Muyl into the game after RBNY had taken a 4-0 lead and total control.
It is true that the Red Bulls have invested heavily in their youth system, and prioritized advancing players from the Academy to the first team roster. It is true that NYRB II has provided an important opportunity for younger players to gather time on the field against professional-grade opposition. But it is also true that there is still room for improvement in a system that is supposed to deliver MLS-caliber players to the RBNY squad.
When Jesse Marsch balked at throwing Davis into a playoff game, despite the player's solid record of starts - and his specific record of success against the same opponent earlier in the season - it revealed the head coach's own lack of faith in his younger players. Yes, he made Muyl a starter this year. But that seems to be the only reliable way for a young player to get significant time with the first team: be an ever-present starter or fight for scraps of time off the bench. There is no real in-between option.
The primary reason Davis increased his time on the field this year was because Dax McCarty was forced to increase his time in the physio room. That isn't squad rotation, it's squad depletion. Similarly, once Muyl was established as a starter, it cost the squad another starting-caliber player: Lloyd Sam was shipped out.
This approach will not hold indefinitely. A robust development system must find a way to give emerging players quality time with the first team, and it can't always be at the cost of a senior starter. Rotation is about creating depth in the squad and genuine options at every position: options that should mean the team isn't relying on players who are leaking blood in must-win games. What Jesse is currently practicing is not rotation, it is attrition.
In his end-of-season interview, Sean Davis said exactly what you would expect of an emerging pro: "if you're content being on the bench, you're in the wrong profession."
He will be 24 by the time the 2017 season kicks off: the same age as Dax McCarty when he arrived at RBNY (with more than 100 MLS appearances under his belt); the same age as Felipe when he arrived at the club (with more than 90 MLS appearances to his name); the same age as Kemar Lawrence now (a first-choice starter for the Red Bulls for the last two seasons).
RBNY has made a strong commitment to its Academy and its player development system. It is only two seasons since the club fully embraced its current team-building philosophy. Great strides have been made in that time, including the addition of a fully-professional reserve team. Young players who might otherwise have been lost to the club are under contract. Nor is head coach Jesse Marsch unwilling to give emerging players a shot, but cautious substitutions and reluctance to truly rotate the squad have combined to mean that there aren't many minutes available to players who don't establish themselves as starters.
The Homegrown tag doesn't mean a player ages differently. At 24, Davis should be impatiently pushing for a more significant role with the first team, otherwise - as he said - he's in the wrong profession. RBNY needs to show its Homegrown prospects that Alex Muyl is not an exception. To do that, it needs to show that a place on the end of Marsch's bench isn't the end of the club's development pipeline.