The New York Red Bulls have played local rival New York City FC on six occasions in MLS. RBNY has won five of those encounters, outscoring NYCFC 18-5 along the way. The structure of MLS is such that it is unlikely the record between the teams will remain quite so lopsided forever, but the Red Bulls are enjoying these early exchanges a lot more than their strident, striving neighbors. And Red's current hold over Blue now extends well beyond New York: in their first-ever meeting outside their respective stadiums and outside MLS play, RBNY beat NYCFC, 2-0.
It was the usual result of this fixture for unusual reasons. The teams faced off in preseason for the first time, which meant their priorities were not the traditional beat-the-other-guys-and-get-points-in-the-league. For RBNY, this was the last chance for the first team to test itself before the games start to count: the Red Bulls are back into CONCACAF Champions League action on February 22 and that means the reserves will see out the rest of the club's preseason games in Arizona. For NYCFC, whose season doesn't start until March 5, the game was mostly treated as an opportunity to look at back-ups and trialists.
So it was a lopsided match-up on paper because RBNY's stars were out and NYCFC's were not.
Today's #NYCFC Starting XI vs. RB— New York City FC (@NYCFC) February 15, 2017
Shelton, Okoli, Brown
Awuah, Wingate, Stertzer
Allen, Sweat, White, Gomez
Nonetheless, the first half was balanced. The Red Bulls opened the scoring in the 23rd minute, thanks to Gonzalo Veron's quick feet and quick thinking and Sacha Kljestan's cool finish.
NYCFC should have got back into it about 15 minutes later, but Sean Okoli's penalty was too close to Luis Robles.
In the 43rd minute, Kljestan bagged his second goal - an impressive first-time shot off an equally impressive through-ball from Daniel Royer.
RBNY was clearly the dominant team in the second half, but there were no more goals in the match.
Three thoughts on the last preseason game before the Red Bulls get going in CCL:
1. The front four looks set
At least to start the season, it seems Jesse Marsch has found his preferred attacking quartet: Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan, Daniel Royer, and Gonzalo Veron. For the 4-2-2-2 to work (and let us not forget it looked good in last year's preseason before being abandoned when RBNY fell on its face with a 1-6 record to start its league campaign), it will require the front four to play off each other's strengths and be a fluid unit rather than four players sticking to fairly rigid positional assignments.
In this game, we saw encouraging signs of the sort of mutual understanding that will generate the necessary unpredictability for the formation to be effective. Kljestan's first goal was a result of BWP feeding Veron with Sacha gliding into space as the back line tracked the man with the ball. The second goal came from the captain's BWP-esque run and finish and Royer's Kljestan-like, defense-splitting pass. Those weren't the only signs of a front four that can more or less do each other's jobs when required, but they were the ones that counted toward the result.
2. Gonzalo Veron might enjoy 2017
The downside of the 4-2-2-2, at least in RBNY's efforts last year and so far in 2017, is that it can become too narrow and therefore easy to contain. If the full backs can't get forward, or the front four make a few wrong decisions, there isn't a lot of width inherent in the formation and it can quickly devolve into a bunch of players clustered around the middle of the pitch with nowhere to go.
Mostly what was lacking during last season's horrendous start was a game-breaking player who could operate in tight spaces with the ball at his feet. Mostly what was lacking was a player like Gonzalo Veron.
We know Veron can be very effective in this formation because he was in the 2016 preseason. His injury wasn't the only reason RBNY had a bad start to the year, but it didn't help. In this game, we saw exactly how Veron can turn a match the Red Bulls' way.
RBNY's first goal was almost entirely Veron's creation.
He got a bad pass from BWP - a little too quick and high for (one would guess) the give-and-go that was expected. With his back to goal and two defenders on him, he needed two touches just to get the ball under control. But that moment of uncertainty also gave him a hint of space, and he turned it into a clear run at goal. And then the pass to an unmarked Kljestan: Veron's signature move is the cut-back to a teammate in a scoring position once he's got the defense to follow him.
BWP's record over the past three seasons has proven he is a goal scorer of unmatched consistency in the history of MLS - but he can be contained, like any striker. And he has off days, like any striker.
Veron will have off days too, but the promise of the opening goal of this game was the complementary strengths of the two nominal forwards in RBNY's formation. BWP's greatest asset is his movement and intelligence off-the-ball; Veron is at his best with the ball at his feet.
In the case of the first goal in this game, if it had been Veron feeding BWP, the NYCFC defense was playing the right sort of game: best to watch the man more closely than the ball when marking Wright-Phillips. Veron is a different proposition for a defender because he is more interested in beating his marker on the dribble - better to stop him getting the ball at all than allow him a moment or two in possession to think about what to do next.
Playing as he did against NYCFC - with the understanding and support of his teammates and the license to play to his strengths - Veron makes RBNY a lot better than it would be without him.
3. We've seen this before
There are a number of reasons not to read too much into this result: it is preseason; it was mostly NYCFC's reserves. And there are a number of issues that are still cause for concern with RBNY, perhaps foremost uncertainty over quite how many players are available for CCL: Mike Grella is recovering from surgery; neither Connor Lade, nor Gideon Baah, nor Damien Perrinelle have made a public preseason appearance yet; Alex Muyl hasn't been seen since he took a knock in the scrimmage with New England.
But arguably the primary reason to temper expectation is we have seen this before: RBNY looked good in a 4-2-2-2 last preseason; Gonzalo Veron looked particularly good.
After seven competitive games in 2016, the Red Bulls had six losses and a lot of injuries. Adjustments were made, the season was retrieved by reverting to the 4-2-3-1 and trading for pieces only hindsight revealed to be missing (Aurelien Collin mostly - the center back RBNY didn't know it needed until almost all its center backs were injured). And Veron never really made it back into the starting lineup.
This season's early test is not the transition to the 4-2-2-2: the Red Bulls demonstrated they can play the formation a year ago. The test is whether the team can avoid another bad start and avoid abandoning the carefully laid plans of preseason for a second consecutive season.
In the league, even a string of losses is not catastrophic. But playoffs are different, as RBNY knows too well. And in 2017, the team kicks off its season with playoffs, not league games.
As soon as the Red Bulls qualified for the 2016-17 CCL knockout rounds, the point of this preseason was to make sure the team starts the year hot. It is often said that the season doesn't count until the playoffs: this year, the season begins with playoffs. A slow start won't mean RBNY's year is over but it will mean the preseason was a bust, again.