No need to make excuses for the New York Red Bulls. The team has won the Supporters' Shield twice in the last four seasons; it was the top team in the Eastern Conference in 2016; it is the only side in MLS to have scored more than 60 goals in both of the last two seasons; it was the top-scoring team in the East (or tied for that record) in every season from 2011 to 2015, and in 2016 it was one goal shy of NYCFC's regular-season total of 62 goals. And it tends to get good results at home:
#RBNY has not lost a home regular season or CCL match since 4/9/16— Gordon Stevenson (@gmksIV) March 25, 2017
As RBNY's official game notes point out, this 0-0 draw sees the team complete a full calendar year unbeaten at home (it next plays at Red Bull Arena on April 15), and it has a returned a scoreless tie on only three occasions in the 72 regular-season games played under head coach Jesse Marsch.
So there is no need to make excuses for RBNY: the team has put a lot of time and effort into having higher standards than those that might allow for satisfaction with a scoreless draw at Red Bull Arena against an opponent that has (still) scored one goal so far this season, was missing key players to international duty and injury, and contrived to miss some of the best chances you'll see go unrewarded all year:
RSL with a few chances here but RBNY manage to keep it out. #NYvRSL pic.twitter.com/AmdNAOfmkc— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) March 25, 2017
Captain. Ironman. Luis Robles. #NYvRSL | #RBNY pic.twitter.com/wBi6gNfbjs— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) March 25, 2017
RSL had several clear-cut scoring chances, and handled them as well as might be expected of a team that has scored once in its first four league games.
The Red Bulls had chances too:
Big save R̶i̶m̶a̶n̶d̶o̶ Van Oekel! #NYvRSL https://t.co/6g9vi3Sqsr— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 25, 2017
All told, the home team conjured 18 shots, but put only three on target. Two headers - one from Bradley Wright-Phillips and the other from Fredrik Gulbrandsen - perhaps stand out as the biggest misses, since RSL 'keeper Matt Van Oekel appeared stranded if either had hit the target.
Yes, RBNY was missing players too. Yes, on another day maybe one of the 10 shots BWP and Gulbrandsen fashioned between them goes into the net - or maybe one of the multitude of errant crosses or mis-timed runs works out. The Red Bulls certainly did enough to win. But so did RSL. And, as mentioned, RBNY does not need to make excuses for a poor outing.
It left itself exposed too often, wasn't punished, and failed to make the most of the opportunities it created. Simultaneously, this shabby 0-0 draw was two points dropped by the home team - because there were several chances to seize the win - and a point gained, since RSL will look at the tape and wonder how exactly it left RBA without a goal to its name.
A team with RBNY's standards and expectations does not want to play many games like this in a season. It should be even less interested in making excuses for playing games like this. The clean sheet (which had to be earned) is a positive, and the Red Bulls will carry the few positives from this game forward to next week, while seeking to eliminate the negatives before any further momentum gathers behind the creeping suspicion that the effort to get a 4-2-2-2 formation going is hindering the potential of the squad.
Three further thoughts on RBNY's disappointing draw with RSL:
1. Everybody loves Tyler Adams
Start with a positive: Jesse Marsch chose to start Tyler Adams in midfield, and the 18-year-old vindicated the decision. Look no further than Stars and Stripes FC (and Dirty South Soccer - he keeps busy) Managing Editor Rob Usry's Twitter feed:
This ball by Tyler Adams is pure class. If Muyl doesn't stop his run it's on highlight reels everywhere. pic.twitter.com/TBI1PG4TvD— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) March 25, 2017
Tyler Adams does dope things Vol. 2 pic.twitter.com/N96Gb7wvLO— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) March 25, 2017
Your first touch better be immaculate if Tyler Adams is on the field pic.twitter.com/3y4WOgJtAm— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) March 25, 2017
Just going to rebrand my personal twitter account to a Tyler Adams gif/shrine account.— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) March 25, 2017
Actually, do look further. Mlssoccer.com's Ben Baer is an Adams fan:
Here's your Tyler Adams highlight video from today. Get the #HypeTrain going. #NYvRSL pic.twitter.com/fuA2Hu9Gqm— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) March 25, 2017
Or read SB Nation's Kevin McCauley's homage to Adams' performance against RSL:
Tyler Adams showed why he’s a top USMNT prospect against RSL https://t.co/Izee634tpM pic.twitter.com/h1zvG1U953— Kevin McCauley (@kevinmccauley) March 25, 2017
There will be more such pieces written, likely including several on OaM (where he has already been dubbed "AmeriKante"), not least because it has hard to see how Sean Davis gets his place in the starting lineup back after Adams' shift against RSL. The midfielder did very little wrong and a lot right. Until he heads out to South Korea in May with the USA U-20 squad for the U-20 World Cup, it looks like the start for RBNY is his to lose.
2. Subs again, Jesse
The Red Bulls were shorthanded for this game. Sacha Kljestan is away with the US Men's National Team. Amir Murillo (Panama) and Derrick Etienne (Haiti) are also on international duty. Gonzalo Veron remains unfit to play; Mike Grella has just joined the injury list.
Veron, Etienne, Grella, and Kljestan are almost half the roster's current options to staff the front four. Jesse Marsch's choices were limited for the starting lineup, though that did not prevent him making a few unforced changes.
STARTING XI#NYvRSL | #RBNY pic.twitter.com/gYJI9XZNKB— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) March 25, 2017
The return of Connor Lade to the lineup - after a long injury-enforced hiatus - was both welcome and unexpected: Sal Zizzo has appeared to be playing quite well at right back. But Lade got the start. And, as already noted, Tyler Adams was selected over Sean Davis in midfield.
The front four more or less picked itself: Marsch simply selected the four seasoned starters he had to hand. And his bench didn't offer a lot of options to change things up. It wasn't particularly surprising, therefore, to see Lade withdrawn after about 60 minutes for Zizzo. The returning right back is only just returning to match fitness, and it seemed as though Marsch had planned to give Lade a run with the more attack-minded Zizzo coming in later in the game to run at RSL's tiring defense.
With 15 minutes left, Marsch made his second substitution: Fredrik Gulbrandsen came out for Sean Davis. This was a less obvious move. It was understandable in the sense that Gulbrandsen is recently-arrived in the squad and was making just his second start for RBNY - maybe he isn't quite 90-minutes fit yet. But he was also stretching RSL's defense, getting into good positions and generally looking like the Red Bulls' most likely game-changing threat to score. Withdrawing him for Davis seemed to take a little wind out of RBNY's sails for the expected late-game push for a match-winner.
And finally...there was no finally. Marsch made no further substitutions. He didn't have many options: reserve 'keeper Ryan Meara, back-up left back Justin Bilyeu, out-of-favor center back Aurelien Collin, and reserve center mid Dan Metzger - hardly obvious scoring threats. But he did also have forward Brandon Allen on the bench.
It isn't entirely clear that Allen's talents will translate to MLS, or at least to RBNY's system in MLS. But perhaps this would have been a game to throw some minutes his way to see what he might offer the team when it needed a goal - because what Allen has always been good at for as long as he has played soccer (is the impression given by his career history) is scoring goals.
Over the course of two seasons with RBNY, Marsch's faith in his methods has largely been vindicated by 2015's Supporters' Shield and last year's worst-to-first recovery from a slow start to the Eastern Conference's regular-season title. Twice, he has put his faith in his preferred players and tactics to come good over time, and twice that has worked out rather well. But in the playoffs, the team has twice been defeated by an opponent that has successfully predicted the Red Bulls' game plan and successfully caught the team on a series of off days.
One justification for the renewed effort to get the Red Bulls comfortable in a 4-2-2-2 is it should make them less predictable. Untested players like Allen (in MLS; he has played a full season in USL, with considerable success) also serve to make a team less predictable. An early-season home game against a misfiring opponent that was racking up yellow cards as the match progressed would seem a good opportunity to test out something a little different. But the opportunity was not taken. Marsch stuck by more seasoned options and left this observer wondering what purpose there was in naming Allen to the bench if not to use him to chase a goal late in the game.
3. Not there yet
After four games, RBNY has seven points in MLS 2017. That is a decent total for a team that has put in some uneven performances in the league so far this year.
Against Atlanta United in Week 1, the Red Bulls were outplayed for much of the match, but outperformed Atlanta on the most important metric of any game: goals scored. Against Colorado Rapids, in Week 2, a strong showing was countered by Tim Howard in magnificent form, but RBNY at least got a goal and three points for its efforts. Last week, the team was bested by a Sounders squad eager to get its first win of the new season in its home-opener. And this week, RBNY somehow managed to be lucky not to lose and unlucky not to win.
Add it all up and you get a team clearly not playing at the level it expects of itself. Points-wise, the performances have been better than last year's effort to get the 4-2-2-2 firing. And it is, of course, just a four-game sample in a 34-game season - a season in which, one suspects, the Red Bulls are more interested in the playoffs that follow those 34 games than the regular season itself.
There is plenty of time to get the team playing effectively in the 4-2-2-2, and transitioning smoothly and equally effectively to the 4-2-3-1 and any other formation shift it might have in mind. But any sense that the Red Bulls might be better than a given opponent is based largely on the achievements of years past. In this season, so far, RBNY isn't where it wants or needs to be yet.
Still, its modest seven-point haul should have bought it more time to become the team it wants to be this year than it allowed itself in 2016. And this is a good thing, because it is clear the Red Bulls need more time to get to where they want to be in 2017.