The New York Red Bulls are unbeaten no more in MLS 2017. A 3-1 loss to Seattle Sounders brought RBNY's bright start to the new league campaign to an abrupt halt, and also ended the team's 18-game unbeaten streak in MLS regular-season play - a record that stretches back to last July. But Seattle's win was well-earned.
For as long as the scores were tied, it was possible to imagine the Red Bulls getting out of the game with a point, at least. Even after the Sounders took the lead, through a 28th-minute penalty from Clint Dempsey, it didn't feel like RBNY was out of the game. After all, the PK had been won by an anomalous event: Damien Perrinelle under-hit a back-pass, likely due to misjudging the speed of the turf at CenturyLink Field. Jordan Morris swooped on the ball and Luis Robles was forced into a risky challenge that had too much in it for referee Baldomero Toldeo's taste.
A mistake from an otherwise competent defender: no biggie. The Red Bulls would find a way back.
And they did find a way back. After half-time, in the 57th minute, Bradley Wright-Phillips was given too much space in the box and got on the end of a Sal Zizzo cross to score with a rare header (and a little help from a deflection).
Scores level with 30 minutes or so to play, maybe RBNY would find its way to another flattering result on the road.
Or not. Seattle's game-changer was Joevin Jones. In the 66th minute, he duped Sal Zizzo on the byline and triggered a quite beautiful scoring sequence that flowed from Jones through Nicolas Lodeiro to Jordan Morris to the go-ahead goal.
And in the 79th minute, he killed the game with a powerful drive into the box that Harry Shipp cleverly diverted past a wrong-footed Robles.
Seattle would close out the game without great difficulty, and somewhere along the way it became clear that RBNY's strategy of giving up counter-attacks to a speedy opposing offense was simply too risky to be allowed to go unpunished. Nor did the Red Bulls do nearly enough when they had the ball to suggest they could compete in the shoot-out they appeared to want to engineer.
In the end, it is tempting to assign the loss to a couple of unfortunate mistakes. But Perrinelle's flubbed pass came with the defender under heavy pressure, and it was not the only such situation RBNY's back line had to deal with - it was just the one that couldn't be salvaged. And the third goal started with a soft turnover in midfield. Mike Grella was the culprit on that occasion, but the Red Bulls were misplacing passes and dribbling into trouble throughout the game, and not just in positions where they were standing by to regain possession.
The highlight of the match - Seattle's second goal - was illustrative of the whole 90 minutes: the Sounders were better overall and they got the goals to prove it.
Losing a road game in the third week of the season is not, of course, a crushing blow to any ambition the Red Bulls hold beyond their hope they might get something out of their trip to Seattle.
The team is visibly undercooked still: the 4-2-2-2 formation is yet to produce the transformative, irrepressible free-scoring it seems designed to deliver; several key players - Sacha Kljestan perhaps foremost - still appear short of their best form; other senior players are still recovering match-fitness or simply weren't available for this game (Kemar Lawrence was a late scratch from the match-day squad for personal reasons). And RBNY took the field with a fresh face up top (Fredrik Gulbrandsen made his first start, scarcely a week after joining the squad) and a back-up left back (Justin Bilyeu - deputizing for the absent Lawrence).
It's not an excuse, unless "the team isn't very good yet" is an excuse for not being very good. But it is an explanation: it's early in the season, there are new tricks being tested, and the old dogs on the roster are either slow to learn or even slower to shake off the rust accumulated during the off-season. And yet, RBNY still has six points from three games in MLS 2017: not bad for being not very good.
The team will expect to play a lot better than this over the course of the year. And maybe the wake-up call that a couple of good results doesn't mean the team is all that good will serve RBNY well. There is a lot still to do, and fortunately there is a lot of season left for it to be done.
Three other thoughts on RBNY's first loss of the 2017 MLS regular season:
1. It's not always the system
Many of the Red Bulls' early-season struggles can be attributed to their ongoing effort to master a new tactical plan. For example, Sacha Kljestan seems to be finding it hard to impose himself on games when he's being asked to play into traffic, and when his most reliable target - Bradley Wright-Phillips - is increasingly often dropping deep or playing with his back to goal. The team's central midfielders, Sean Davis and Felipe, seem to be having difficulty controlling their respective zones, or even figuring out where those zones might be. Indeed, at its worst, the 4-2-2-2 appears to invite the entire RBNY front six to cluster inside a narrow quadrangle in the center of the field and hope one of them finds a way through the massed ranks of the opposition.
But not every problem the Red Bulls have is tactical. Almost any team experiences moments when it is simply outplayed. For the Sounders' second goal, Joevin Jones out-skilled Sal Zizzo on the byline, nutmegging the RBNY right-back - who had the situation covered until Jones shook the cover off.
Jones made the goal happen, and Nicolas Lodeiro's perfect one-time cross should not be disregarded, but the whole sequence was abetted by a series of poor decisions on RBNY's part.
Sean Davis is nominally tracking Lodeiro as the ball flies out to Jones - and then he stops, watches the play unfold, and is too late to make a difference as the cross flies into the six-yard box. Simultaneously, the Red Bulls' center backs dutifully track the play, while the Sounders pile on Justin Bilyeu. Faced with the improbable task of covering three men, Bilyeu picks the wrong one, and Jordan Morris slips round him unmolested to provide Lodeiro with an inviting target.
The Red Bulls can line up in any formation they choose, but there isn't a formation that can compensate for being out-thought and outplayed.
2. It's probably a good thing the streak is over
As it is essentially mandatory to note in discussion of RBNY's current tactical transition, the team tried the exact same thing last year and failed. Even by the lenient standards of a league that mostly judges its teams by which is best in November, the 1-6 start to the 2016 regular season was sufficiently bad to warrant emergency action. Jesse Marsch reorganized his team around principles he knew had worked before, the Red Bulls went back to their favored 4-2-3-1, and the 4-2-2-2 was more or less shelved.
The Red Bulls' 2016 regular-season streak was born largely out of necessity. After what turned out to be the team's last loss in the league until Week 3 of 2017, the 2-0 defeat by NYCFC on July 3, 2016, RBNY had 23 points from 18 league games: 1.28 points per game. That isn't good enough for a team with playoff ambitions. In 2016, Philadelphia just snuck into the post-season with an average of 1.24 ppg. Portland didn't make it with 1.29 ppg.
And RBNY was slumping back in July, 2016. A four-game winning streak had given the impression the team was bouncing back, but after losing to NYCFC, it had one point from its last three league outings and had been ousted from the US Open Cup by Philly. So the streak came in the context of a team that really wanted to be a lot better than it had been up that point in the year, and that was motivated to fight for every point because it had dug itself quite a hole earlier in the season.
The fact the streak persisted into 2017 was probably less helpful. It seems clear RBNY is going to use a large part of this season to focus on the 4-2-2-2. There is presumably a limit to the club's patience with its own shortcomings in the system, but last year's threshold was dropping 18 points out of 21 - the Red Bulls aren't close to that form yet. They are merely imperfect and trying to get better.
As was made clear last week in post-training interviews, the team wasn't thinking about its regular-season unbeaten streak. It served its purpose last year, but it didn't ultimately put another trophy in the cabinet. This is a new season and there are fresh targets. But the streak was gently becoming a story, and maybe RBNY is quietly grateful that the unwanted narrative is now dead.
3. Gulbrandsen did alright
Fredrik Gulbrandsen's debut left one lasting record: he got a yellow card for simulation in the 30th minute.
About which: don't you dare, Disciplinary Committee. There wasn't that much difference between that incident and the one for which Seattle won its penalty.
Chara was fined, but not suspended by DisCo. His teammate, David Guzman, suffered no punishment at all. Incidentally, the referee who yellow-carded Jelle Van Damme for both phantom fouls was Baldomero Toledo - the same man who awarded the penalty to Seattle and the yellow to Gulbrandsen this week. Both of those calls were well within the spectrum of acceptable interpretations of events on the field - but don't you dare meddle in this one, DisCo. Gulbrandsen got his punishment on the field, but whether he dived, unbalanced himself in his lunge to beat Stefan Frei to the ball, or was clipped by the Seattle 'keeper - well, it may never be clear. Leave him be, DisCo.
Back to the point: Gulbrandsen did OK in 57 minutes on the field. He might have done better than OK if any of his teammates had kept pace with the box-to-box breakaway he staged from a Sounders' corner. But no one kept up with him and he was forced to turn around and reset the attack.
Still, that breakaway run was an example of what Gulbrandsen has to offer: he is quicker than most other players on the team. He will do damage when he finds the right sort of space and his teammates have figured out how best to support him.