The New York Red Bulls' second game of the 2017 preseason adopted a more conventional format than the first. Two halves of 45 minutes were preferred to three 30-minute periods, and RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch gave most of his players a full half to stretch their legs.
Fielding about as heavyweight a starting lineup as he has available, Marsch watched his team trade chances with Real Salt Lake for most of the game, ultimately succumbing to a late winner from Jordan Allen.
This game provided RBNY fans with their first look at Homegrown 'keeper Evan Louro (who played the last 30 minutes) and the newest Red Bull, center back Hassan Ndam. Result notwithstanding, there were few surprises in the match. Marsch continued to test draft pick Ethan Kutler at full back. Otherwise he really only made one (slightly) unorthodox tactical decision - which is one of the three thoughts emerging from this 1-0 loss to RSL.
1. The 4-2-2-2 still makes RBNY look vulnerable at the back
As ought to be expected for at least the duration of this first phase of preseason (and then we'll see if Jesse Marsch starts to make a slightly different plan for the team's first competitive games of the year), RBNY mostly stuck to the 4-2-2-2 formation it is trying to make its own for the second consecutive preseason.
Just a few days ago, against Portland, the Red Bulls looked very much the better team. Against RSL, not so much. RBNY did not look any worse than its opponent, but this was a more even game than was experienced against the Timbers. Both teams had their chances. RBNY's best - but not only - scoring opportunity fell to Alex Muyl inside the opening minutes, but he put a close-range effort on to the bar.
Even game or not, the Red Bulls' concern will be less that they lost and more that they could have lost heavily. RSL broke through RBNY's back line on several occasions. If one wanted to pick on him, one could blame new signing Hassan Ndam for the goal the Red Bulls conceded. The young center back couldn't quite intercept a punted clearance, simply helping it on to Ricardo Velazco, who checked his run and arrowed a cross to an unmarked Jordan Allen for a can't-miss header on an empty net. Ndam perhaps compounded his error by following the man with ball. Since Tim Schmoll had already pushed out to cover Velazco's run, it the defense even more unbalanced. Allen was the only man on the far side of RBNY's penalty spot - once the ball reached him, he was unlikely to miss the target.
But that was merely RSL's easiest chance. Marsch and RBNY will doubtless have noticed it was the third or fourth time the situation had arisen in the game: the opposition got round the back of the defense, and a successful cross was going in the net, more likely than not. That a goal was only scored once from these situations was more RSL's fault than RBNY's credit.
And that doesn't count the occasions Joao Plata got himself one-on-one with 'keeper Ryan Meara. Twice, Plata was played in past the center backs, and twice he missed in situations he'd expect to usually hit the target.
So to blame Ndam for the goal would be to ignore the fact that the Red Bulls were not-quite coping with RSL's attack all day. And Jesse Marsch will remember that it was a few too many holes at the back and not nearly enough success on the attacking side of the ball that caused him to abandon the 4-2-2-2 in 2016. These problems don't occur because a teenage center back missed a clearance, they occur because tactical decisions across the entire team aren't meeting the required standard.
It is only the second game of preseason. This problem is the one RBNY knew it had to address as soon as it returned its attention to making the formation work. By not just exposing the problem, but making it count toward the final score, RSL might have done the Red Bulls a favor: there should be no argument about what needs to be put right
2. Derrick Etienne is a forward now?
Well, no. He's not. One point of preseason is to experiment, so the fact Derrick Etienne played 30 minutes as part of the front two against RSL does not mean he's a striker now. Traditionally regarded as an attacking midfielder, with the ability to play either wing or the middle, Etienne subbed in after 30 minutes and got two 15-minute spells either side of half-time. He was first paired with Gonzalo Veron and subsequently with Brandon Allen.
In the second half, when he was playing alongside the teammates from the 2016 NYRB II squad, Etienne looked a little more at ease with a fluid attacking scheme that depends heavily on mutual understanding. But his performance in 30 minutes in preseason is not all that important. What will be important is to see whether the experiment continues.
3. The list of injured and absent players is still pretty long
It's still early in preseason, but the Red Bulls have just 22 days between this friendly against RSL and the season-opener against Vancouver Whitecaps. So there is no crisis, but as every preseason game ticks by, the list of players injured or absent counts for a little more.
The good news from the game against RSL is it did not appear to see any fresh faces added to the team's injury list. The less good news is it appears only Sal Zizzo - starting right back on the day - was fit enough to come off the list and play.
Connor Lade has yet to take the field in preseason, though there is no shortage of footage of him training in Arizona. He at least is visibly recovering from a serious injury sustained last season - and the other two players who suffered similar fates last year, Gideon Baah and Junior Flemmings, didn't make the trip to this camp. So consider Lade's progress encouraging, even if he hasn't been risked in a game yet.
Mike Grella was held out of the first game of preseason - against Portland Timbers - because of a training ground knock, and he wasn't seen against Real Salt Lake either. Jordan Scarlett had to leave the Timbers game due to injury, and he too didn't play against RSL.
Concerns that Kemar Lawrence might have taken a knock against Portland are likely moot: he has been called into Jamaica's squad to play the US Men's National Team on February 3. Lawrence is now among RBNY's preseason absentees. That also now includes Tyler Adams, who has been named to the US U-20 MNT's last training squad before the CONCACAF U-20 Championship. Adams looks on track to make the roster for the tournament, which might effectively keep him away from RBNY until the second week of March.
Also currently absent: Luis Robles (national team duty), Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips (both on paternity leave of sorts), and recently re-signed Damien Perrinelle (assumed to be in the process of joining the team in Arizona).
To be clear, there is no crisis, but it should be noted the squad that played against RSL was missing nine of RBNY's MLS-contracted players, one II-teamer (Flemmings), and a trialing draft pick (Scarlett).