After a winless four-game road trip that saw the New York Red Bulls bounced out of US Open Cup, the team returned home in need of a performance to settle concerns that the current slump might drag the team back down to the depths plumbed at the start of the season. This 0-0 draw with Portland Timbers didn't really address those concerns, but it did not inflame them either. The Red Bulls are not at their free-scoring best at the moment, nor are they completely inept. They are currently a middle-of-the-pack sort of team, as their league position - 4th in the East; 11th in the Supporters' Shield standings - suggests.
1. Damien Perrinelle is back
Perrinelle's return from injury has been a little hurried. One suspects he would not have been in the 18 for this game had it not been absolutely necessary. Since Aurelien Collin and Chris Duvall were both suspended, it was absolutely necessary to have a center back in reserve on the bench. So Jesse Marsch put Perrinelle in the 18 - and was vindicated when Gideon Baah went down injured in the first half.
Perrinelle's first competitive appearance for the first team since he was hurt in last year's playoffs was, eerily, in relief of a teammate who may have suffered a similarly severe injury. Baah fell to the turf while simply jogging back to his position - and looked distraught as he was stretchered off.
We hope Baah will recover quickly and fully, but it was a relief to see Perrinelle put in 70 minutes or so in MLS against a team with a challenging set of attacking players. Perrinelle's great strength is not one likely to have been affected by his injury: he reads the game very well. Anticipation puts him in good positions, and he generally makes good decisions when faced with the sort of now-or-never situations the Red Bulls' aggressive tactics will create for their defenders.
He looked a lot like the Perrinelle who held RBNY's defense together in 2015. And that is an encouraging sign, especially if Baah's injury means the Red Bulls are once again (has it ever stopped this season?) dealing with injuries on the back line.
2. Gonzalo Veron needs more starts
It will be a big surprise if the New York Red Bulls don't sign at least one more attacking player this summer: they've said they're thinking about it and they just offloaded Lloyd Sam. Officially, the club wants us to believe that all options are open, but there was no need to trade away Lloyd Sam just to give Gonzalo Veron a start.
Nonetheless, the first visible consequence of Sam's absence from the squad was Veron lining up as the right winger in what was billed as a 4-2-3-1 against Portland. The formation was more fluid than that - it looked mostly like the 4-2-2-2 was back - and Veron roamed all over the front four, making himself a persistent nuisance to the Portland back line.
In common with the rest of the team, he consistently flubbed what could have been the telling touch in the final third. And too often he was a step ahead or behind what might have been a match-winning connection with a teammate. But sharpness and chemistry come with minutes on the field - and Veron has played less time for RBNY this season than Sean Davis or Karl Ouimette.
Lloyd Sam wasn't keeping Veron from the string of starts the Argentine needs to definitively determine whether he can find his best form and optimal chemistry with his teammates. We know he is capable of driving this team forward: he was doing so in pre-season. And we know he isn't doing so at the moment. We don't know if he will ever really be the player RBNY thought it was getting when it snatched him away from San Lorenzo last year. But we will soon know if the club still has the patience to find out: Veron needs more starts, but he doesn't get to decide if he gets them.
3. We've seen this one before
The Red Bulls out-possessed, out-passed, and out-shot Portland by a considerable margin.
But in terms of memorable chances, the teams were about even. Luis Robles and Jake Gleeson both made some impressive saves to keep their respective sheets clean. But the result should be of some concern for the Red Bulls.
The team's tactical approach is supposed to generate a lot of shots on goal, and consistently that is the case. But too many times we have seen opponents come to Red Bull Arena and profit from challenging the Red Bulls to play a slower, possession-heavy game. This was another one of those occasions, and again RBNY labored to find a solution to a well-drilled defense. In isolation, that's just an unfortunate game where chances usually taken were missed. The 2016 Red Bulls have been kept scoreless eight times in 19 league matches: not scoring is a habit.
The club is certainly aware of the issue, and is clearly working on a solution - one that required shipping Lloyd Sam out of the squad. We have yet to see that solution, but this game was a reminder that Sam was not the problem and simply offloading him is not the answer.