It was the first game of RBNY's preseason, played against a team also stretching its legs in a non-training game for the first time this year - so best not to get too carried away with result. The match was divided into three 30-minute segments, and both sides used it to give as many players as they could some time on the field. It was, first and foremost, a fitness test, a chance to get back into the rhythm of competition. Neither coach will dwell too long on the result.
But a win is better than a loss. The Red Bulls will return to training with the sense their preparations are advancing well. A more difficult thought to sustain if the Timbers had won. And these small steps forward are more important to RBNY than usual this year. If the Red Bulls' eccentric off-season gave the impression the club had taken its eyes off the CONCACAF Champions League prize it will compete for starting February 22, there has been a near-unanimous effort to correct that since training camp started. Jesse Marsch has made quite clear he's aware of the big CCL quarterfinal in his team's future, and it is the primary goal of the current preseason.
With less than a month to go before the CCL matches against Vancouver Whitecaps arrive, RBNY needs to make every one of its preseason days count toward progress to being the better team on the field when it comes time to kick off its 2017 campaign in February.
Three thoughts on the first game in the service of that goal:
1. Back to the future: the 4-2-2-2 has returned
Remember the 2016 preseason? All RBNY would talk about was "sophistication", which turned out to mean a commitment to working out how to play in the 4-2-2-2 formation that has become a sort of tactical template for Red Bull Global Soccer. It went well, until the season started. Unfortunately for RBNY, a cluster of injuries and some lackluster form in the attacking third forced the team into playing catch-up with rest of the Eastern Conference. The team shored up the back line with Aurelien Collin and a slightly less aggressive approach to its pressing, and reorganized around the 4-2-3-1 that had won it a Supporters' Shield in 2015. That proved good enough to win the Eastern Conference again, but not good enough to win in the playoffs. For the second year in a row, and at an earlier stage than in 2015, the Red Bulls exited the post-season against an opponent who knew what to expect and whose plans to counter RBNY's game worked very well.
Back to the drawing board? Not quite. But the Red Bulls are certainly going back to the 4-2-2-2, at least for now. It was the formation of choice against Portland, and it worked very well. RBNY dominated the first two 30-minute periods; even when the game evened out a little in the final 30, it seemed the Red Bulls had the better of the back-and-forth.
It is impossible to say at this stage what elements of one scrimmage against three different Portland lineups (Caleb Porter fielded a fresh team for each period) will stick. RBNY used a mostly senior first-team lineup in the opening period, and tilted the field to the left flank, finding most joy through Daniel Royer and Kemar Lawrence. The opening goal came in just the fourth minute: Lawrence chased up the field and first-timed a cross into the box; the Portland back line was caught flat and succeeded only in diverting the ball into Rennico Clarke who diverted it into the net.
At right back, RBNY started Ethan Kutler, who mostly stayed back when Lawrence was advanced - which meant he mostly stayed back. A draft pick auditioning for a contract and a newcomer to both right back and the Red Bulls' system, Kutler has strong incentive to follow his coach's orders. So we assume he did just that.
Marsch didn't follow Porter's example with substitutions. The Red Bulls subbed in a few players after 30 minutes, a few more around the 45-minute mark, and the rest between the 54th and 70th. With the exception of Homegrown rookie 'keeper Evan Louro, every player fit for the game in RBNY's camp got a run on the field.
Signs of early-season rust were plentiful. Gonzalo Veron sliced a good chance; Brandon Allen overcame losing his footing and picking the wrong man to pass to on a three-man break to recover in time to miss an open goal; Zeiko Lewis came on for the last 20 minutes to combine a few good runs and crosses with some hasty passes to nowhere.
Both sides were manifestly a group of players easing back into swing of things. But the potential benefit of RBNY's fully-integrated club system were visible. NYRB II stuck closer to the 4-2-2-2 mandate (well, it feels like a mandate given New York's apparent eagerness to get on the same page as Red Bulls Leipzig and Salzburg) than the first team in 2016. By the middle of the second period, we were basically watching NYRB II's 2016 team play Portland's trialists, draft picks, and fringe first-teamers. Familiarity with each other and the system seemed to add up to a much more coherent display from RBNY than the still-getting-to-know-each-other Timbers. The movement of RBNY's front four challenged Portland as it had challenged all of USL last season.
Tyler Adams caught the eye in midfield. Florian Valot had some impressive moments, particularly in forcing turnovers in the final third. Vincent Bezecourt won a penalty at the end of the second period, and took it himself to clinch the game for RBNY.
All iterations of the back line coped well with the various challenges presented by the ever-changing Portland lineups. One might single out Ryan Meara, who controlled his area very well for 70 minutes, and Kutler, who was the obvious weak link in the starting lineup but held his own at right back until he was subbed out in the second period.
But no one on the Red Bulls side looked to be in any sort of condition that cannot be explained by the fact that it is January and the players are working to be in form a month from now. What does look certain is the 4-2-2-2 is back, and presumably here to stay - until or unless, perhaps, RBNY gets itself into the same trouble it did in 2016.
2. Injuries are back too
Another constant feature of RBNY's 2016 was injuries to key first-team players. Gonzalo Veron, Gideon Baah, Ronald Zubar, Damien Perrinelle, Connor Lade, Dax McCarty, Chris Duvall, latterly Daniel Royer and Omer Damari: many key players had inconvenient injury problems throughout the season. This undoubtedly influenced the decision to scrap the 4-2-2-2 during the regular season: at some point, any coach must look at the players available and fashion a plan that works now, rather than one that might work if some other players were around to give it a go.
Right now, the Red Bulls are mostly dealing with the usual early-season fitness issues, so there is no need to think that the team is going to head down the path dictated to it by its 2016 injury problems. But the current squad is thin in places, and the first game of preseason exposed some of the weaknesses on the current roster. With Gideon Baah not yet fit to join the camp and Damien Perrinelle just re-signed and working on his visa, RBNY's starting center backs against the Timbers were Aurelien Collin and (still, technically, on a NYRB II contract) Aaron Long.
Draft pick Jordan Scarlett, a center back, was injured about nine minutes into his first run-out for RBNY, and was ultimately replaced by Tim Schmoll in the 43rd minute. By the end of the game, the Red Bulls had tested (left back) Justin Bilyeu at CB and (attacking midfielder) Vincent Bezecourt at left back; and the match had started with Ethan Kutler (an attacking player in college) at right back.
Some fans thought they saw Kemar Lawrence suggesting he'd taken a knock as he left the field in the 48th minute as part of the second planned wave of substitutes. And the Jamaican has been called up to his national team squad: one way or the other, his absence will shortly further test RBNY's squad depth.
After one game of preseason, RBNY's injury concerns are as follows: Gideon Baah (recovering from long-term injury; not yet in camp); Connor Lade (recovering from long-term injury; in camp but started and finished the Portland game on the bench, dressed like he expected to do no more than watch); Sal Zizzo (in camp; reportedly sidelined by illness); Mike Grella (in camp; reportedly sidelined by a training-ground knock); and maybe Kemar Lawrence.
And in the ranks of the players who might hope to be the answer to RBNY's depth needs, II-teamer Junior Flemmings is not in camp because he is still recovering from the injury that cut his 2016 short, and Scarlett was last seen being helped off the field in Arizona.
All teams must cope with injury issues throughout any season. The Red Bulls will be happy if their most acute injury crisis this year is in the last week of January. Right now, it's just an excuse to test depth options, and there may yet be new signings planned to address some of the roster issues exposed against Portland. Indeed, it's not even an injury crisis - it's just an issue to keep an eye on, for now.
3. Not sure Freddy Adu is getting a contract with Portland
A surprise addition to the Timbers' preseason squad, Adu was part of Portland's lineup for the final 30-minute period of the game. He was neither terrible nor exceptional. It is still early in preseason, and Adu could yet impress in upcoming matches. But on this showing, Portland has younger and more eye-catching options. Freddy Adu has some work ahead of him if he's hoping the Timbers might provide him with his MLS comeback opportunity.