Perhaps it was the heat: a hot day in July did not offer the easiest conditions for the New York Red Bulls favored frantic pressing game. Perhaps it was the fact NYRB II got pitched out of Red Bull Arena and forced to play at RBNY's training facility because the stadium was required for a referees' workshop. Maybe it was simple one rotation too many: NYRB II kicked off this game with relative newcomers at both full back positions (David Najem took the right back spot; Academy player Kevin O'Toole started out left); regular starters Konrad Plewa, Brandon Allen, Stefano Bonomo, and Speedy Williams were all on the bench at kick-off; Derrick Etienne was away on international duty with Haiti's U-23 squad.
Or perhaps it was simply the old weakness of the Red Bulls' system. This season, the first team has repeatedly struggled against teams that defend deep, stay compact, and use the counter-attack effectively. Charleston followed that playbook very well. We haven't seen NYRB II beaten since May 1, but we have seen RBNY lose quite often this season - and quite often to the tactic utilized by the Battery.
Abetted somewhat by NYRB II's willingness to back off the press more often than usual - a concession to the heat, one assumes - Charleston made good use of the occasional opportunity to break forward, especially from set pieces. Though the Red Bulls enjoyed more of the ball, the Battery made better use of it. The tone was set in the 9th minute. Charleston's first extensive spell of possession was broken up by a clearance to touch, and O'Brian Woodbine lined up a long throw into the box. Maikel Chang made the perfect run, heading past Meara from close range.
Twenty minutes later, it was 2-0 to the visitors. The build-up to the goal illustrated the difference between the two teams. NYRB II attempted a quick break on goal, but Florian Valot's pass was a touch heavy for Anatole Abang - it was cut out, but the Red Bulls recovered the clearance and pushed forward again. Facing a packed-in defense, Vincent Bezecourt tried a clever chip over the back line - too heavy again. The ensuing goal kick saw O'Brian Woodbine receive the ball in his own half. He took a few touches, looked up, and played a perfect pass through the (large) gap in the back line. Romario Williams got goal-side of Tim Schmoll and picked his spot. 2-0 to the Battery.
That second goal was facilitated by a familiar Red Bulls' problem: with the full backs high, the center backs are exposed. In this instance, Woodbine elegantly curled his pass through the space that might have been covered by a more conservatively positioned right back, and the ball drifted in behind the center backs. Williams had already demonstrated he had a step or two on NYRB II's CBs, and he made easy work of outrunning Schmoll. The names might be different, but the circumstances - absent full backs put too much pressure on the center backs - were very familiar to anyone who has watched RBNY regularly this season.
Much like the first team, NYRB II was able to create chances. In the first half, the most promising opportunities fell to Anatole Abang - allowed a rare start for the USL team. The first was a sharp one-on-one chance that saw Battery 'keeper Alex Tambakis react well, closing down the angle quickly and smothering the shot. The second again saw Abang on his own against the 'keeper, but the pass had pushed the forward a little too wide and the 'keeper was always favorite to make the save (Abang hit the side netting trying to go near post with his shot).
Still, it was the big Cameroonian who made the difference for NYRB II in the six minutes of the second half when it seemed the home team might win control of the match. In the 55th minute, Abang turned play-maker, making a defense-splitting pass on the turn that played in Valot for a cross to Stefano Bonomo (who had just entered the game), who tapped in.
In the 61st minute, left back O'Toole fired in a cross to Abang. It was a little too high for the forward but his jump held the attention of defenders and 'keeper long enough to allow the ball to get past them all - and bounce into goal. O'Toole is not a professional player - he is expected to attend Princeton next season - but his first goal at the professional level will surely be a career highlight.
With scores level and 30 minutes or so to play, we appeared to be watching another impressive NYRB II comeback. But O'Brian Woodbine intervened for the third time in the match. In the 66th minute, the Jamaican angled a long free kick to the left side of the Red Bulls' defense. Chang got the better of a physical tangle with O'Toole, and scrambled quickly into space, drawing Aaron Long toward him. And then a cross once again curled in front of goal behind the back line - this time at tap-in range - found a Battery forward (Heviel Cordoves) a step quicker than the back-tracking defense.
The match was some distance from over and the Red Bulls continued to generate chances. In a 10-minute cameo, Zoumana Simpara made a memorable case for more time on the field, torturing Charleston's defense with some determined running and clever moves on the ball.
But it was for naught. NYRB II's unbeaten streak is stopped at 12 games. Having come into this game fresh from winning three consecutive road matches (and the II team is still unbeaten away from home in USL this season), the reserve Red Bulls may be pleased to see their next two fixtures are on the road.
And the result didn't change a great deal in the USL standings: Eastern Conference leader Louisville City also lost - to Cincinnati FC - and so NYRB II remains a point off the top of the East with a game in hand.
As tends to be the case with the II team, the most significant aspects of this match aren't really about the result. Having spent most of this season challenging Anatole Abang to make something of limited minutes, the club may finally have committed to helping its young forward progress in a more constructive way: he was allowed not just a start, but a full 90 minutes. In return we were given an increasingly confident performance by Abang. He didn't magically recover his confidence in front of goal, but he played his part in NYRB II's scoring, contributing the sort of running and passing that opened up Charleston's stubbornly compact back line.
Simpara's cameo at the end was encouraging. Vincent Bezecourt and Florian Valot were both active in the time they enjoyed on the field. And while both Najem and O'Toole fell victim to the positioning problems the Red Bulls' tactics present to anyone who tries to play full back in the current system, they both looked confident and effective on the attacking side of the ball.
The result notwithstanding, NYRB II can take several positives away from this game. Next up: Richmond Kickers on July 30.