The New York Red Bulls were soundly beaten in the end. Vancouver Whitecaps scored early and late in the second leg of the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League's all-MLS quarterfinal. The 2-0 home win handed the Caps a 3-1 aggregate victory and a semifinal against Tigres UANL.
RBNY must swallow a bitter pill: it wasn't good enough in this series, and when it really counted - in the second leg - it was worse than it had been a week earlier at Red Bull Arena. It is only the second game of 2017. There are many more to play, still three competitions (we hope) in which to hunt for a trophy. But in this competition, in the games that were always going to define the start of the Red Bulls' season, they came up short. Very short.
Vancouver successfully choked RBNY with possession, handing the Red Bulls more than 70% of the ball, and finding abundant counter-attacking opportunities in return. The win was no more an accident than the possession stats: the Caps knew they could draw RBNY forward, and knew they'd get chances on the break. They got a lot of chances.
The Red Bulls aren't really a team that can be interpreted sensibly via possession and passing statistics: that's not their game any more. A lot of the ball and a lot of connected passes mostly means the team has been becalmed, cautiously playing keep-ball, fearful of pushing forward because it knows it can be caught out on the counter. RBNY is supposed to be the team that doesn't need the ball to win, because it will corral an opponent's possession into ever smaller pockets of space, and the pick those pockets for turnovers in dangerous areas.
Instead, however, it was Vancouver who swaggered around the press and caught RBNY with six men back but only one tracking the runner on goal - in the fifth minute.
Alphonso Davies scored the opener and tortured the Red Bulls throughout.
Luis Robles kept RBNY in the game a lot longer than was deserved.
And the team's set-piece game continued to deliver its best chances to get back on level terms with the Caps.
But a poorly-cleared corner in the 76th minute allowed Fredy Montero to apply Vancouver's knockout punch.
The Red Bulls lost, out-played and out-planned from start to finish. They are out of CCL and will begin their 2017 MLS campaign hoping to shrug off the failure that has tainted the beginning of the season.
Three thoughts on a disappointing end to RBNY's 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League.
1. Blame preseason
The Red Bulls put in a worse performance in their second game of the season than they had done in their first. Being on the road doesn't adequately explain quite how poor it was: both teams applied much the same game plan as they had used in the first leg; Vancouver was better.
And the Whitecaps arguably had more excuses than RBNY for a poor performance. A slew of injuries and suspensions to veteran players; newly-signed attacker Yordy Reyna lamed before the season started; a rookie at right back; a 16-year-old on the wing; a left back who hadn't been with the team for a full week playing at center forward: the list of apparent weaknesses in Vancouver's lineup was long.
RBNY has its own personnel issues, and you can certainly blame injuries (Connor Lade, Gideon Baah; to a lesser extent, Mike Grella and Alex Muyl; the in-game injury to Veron) for some of RBNY's issues. Or you can blame the decision to transition the team to a once-tried-never-really-worked formation from day one of the new season. Blame Kemar Lawrence for not clearing the cross that led to the first goal, or Sacha Kljestan for a similar error that invited the second. Blame a host of not-quite-right decisions during the match. But mostly, blame preseason.
The challenge for the three MLS teams in this year's CCL knockout rounds was the same as it ever was: figure out how to make the best of the league's preseason constraints and come out hotter-than-usual for opening day.
FC Dallas' innovation was to play an entire preseason schedule in one week in Argentina: FC Dallas won its quarterfinal 5-2 on aggregate, thanks to a startlingly confident 4-0 home win in the first leg. Vancouver took a trip to Wales, played some British reserve teams on damp fields, and then played a preseason tournament in close-to-home conditions in Portland. That plus some late-arrivals to the squad - Brek Shea and Fredy Montero - apparently gave the Caps sufficient chemistry to figure out that rookie Jake Nerwinski could handle the right back assignment, and to figure out where and how Shea and Montero could help a squad depleted by injury. Vancouver heads to the semifinals able to take satisfaction from its preparations for CCL.
The Red Bulls cannot. For a team that talks a lot about taking opponents out of their comfort zone, RBNY was curiously reluctant to leave its own comfort zone for preseason. Dallas went to Argentina, Vancouver abandoned a traditional training camp in Arizona to test itself in Wales: CCL is a different sort of start to the season than MLS clubs are used to; a different sort of season warrants a different sort of preseason.
RBNY also changed its usual plans: it went from its usual camp in Florida to Vancouver's usual camp in Arizona. Inhabiting the comfort zone vacated by the Caps wasn't a particularly dramatic change of circumstance. Jesse Marsch has admitted that the plan for the 2017 preseason had been drawn up with the expectation of a Mexican CCL opponent, but it isn't clear how the time spent in Arizona would have been any more effective in helping the team prep for Pachuca than it was in getting RBNY ready to vanquish Vancouver.
Marsch said he wanted more games, earlier in the training camp cycle, against MLS opponents. That was achieved: RBNY got in four scrimmages against other MLS teams by February 15, and then the first-team squad had to fly home for CCL.
But only one of those games featured a full-strength lineup - the same lineup that started the first leg against Vancouver - and it also featured NYCFC's reserves. The only time Marsch got his best-available CCL lineup on the field in preseason was a week before the first leg, against NYCFC's second team.
It wasn't Marsch fault that Luis Robles and Sacha Kljestan had January camp with the US Men's National Team. It wasn't Marsch's fault that Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kljestan had babies born during preseason. Nor was it the head coach's fault that Alex Muyl and Mike Grella were injured during training camp, and that Connor Lade and Gideon Baah are still recovering from injuries that ended their 2016 seasons.
But those complications (and the failure to conclude contract negotiations with Damien Perrinelle until it was essentially too late for him to challenge for a CCL start) merely seemed to compound a preseason plan that lacked the right ambition. It was ambitious to force through a formation change in the short time available before CCL kicked off, and...well, you saw what a half-fit team trying to get to grips with a new system looks like. Twice.
The primary job of preseason should have been to win a CCL quarterfinal, not get the 4-2-2-2 off the ground. The 4-2-2-2 might yet prove a thrilling and irrepressible success in MLS, but it didn't help RBNY in the 2016-17 edition of CCL at all.
Hindsight and second-guessing are terrible weapons to use against a team or a coaching staff. But all one can do is judge results and look for explanations. The Red Bulls just delivered a worse performance than the mediocre one they put in a week ago. They looked predictable, out-of-sync, and generally out of sorts. The team is not a bad team: it won the Eastern Conference last year. And the core of the team - even without Dax McCarty - still remembers winning the 2015 Supporters' Shield playing the same style they play now but a formation they enjoy so much they used it to dig out of a hole last year and challenge for the Shield again.
The task in preseason was to bring that winning team out to play Vancouver and win. That didn't happen. Preseason was a failure.
The Red Bulls' season isn't a failure - it has only just begun. The 4-2-2-2 isn't a failure - it's only two games into its revival. But the decision to put that team playing that way on the field with that preseason behind it: that was a poor choice, as demonstrated by the results.
If you want to blame something for RBNY's CCL exit, blame RBNY's preseason. (And credit the Caps for playing well in the face of their own challenges, of course.)
2. Gonzalo Veron is injured again
It took eight minutes for RBNY's game in Vancouver to go from bad to worse: already a goal down, the team watched Gonzalo Veron hobble off the field in the 8th minute.
He took with him the best evidence that the Red Bulls can make the 4-2-2-2 formation work. In 2016 and again this year, there simply hasn't been a successful deployment of the formation. During last year's slow start, the one win in the first seven games was Veron's comeback match after an injury in preseason. He set up the first goal against Houston, went off injured shortly thereafter, and within a few weeks, RBNY settled back into the 4-2-3-1 it knew it could play well.
Veron's absence against Vancouver hurt RBNY's game plan. His absence for any extended period could hurt the team's plans for the season. His ability to work in tight spaces, the fact he can beat a marker with speed or on the dribble - these things make him critical to the traffic-jam prone 4-2-2-2 (at least the way it plays out when RBNY try it, for now).
The Red Bulls have too many injury issues to say it with certainty, but it looks as though Derrick Etienne is penciled in as Veron's replacement in the formation. He has a similar skill-set, and he's played successfully in similar set-ups for NYRB II. And of the potential Veron-alternatives in the squad, he's been most fit, most recently - so he has been replacing Veron in the lineup since preseason.
Potentially a lot of weight on the Homegrown midfielder's shoulders until Veron is fit again. If he's the preferred alternative to RBNY's DP Argentine playmaker, Etienne isn't just carrying his own hopes of nailing down a starting job, he's carrying the team's hopes of a successful transition to 4-2-2-2 as well.
3. It's too early to scrap the 4-2-2-2
There are a lot of reasons not to like what RBNY is showing in its present formation. The approach the Red Bulls use narrows and shortens the field: leaving a lot of space behind the back line and very little up front.
Sacha Kljestan has nominally been a winger on the lineup sheets, but his job is cut inside, playing off and playing in the two forwards. Kljestan lacks the pace to be a true winger, though he can serve a cross if he gets space and time to do so. Daniel Royer can be a wide man, but he too is mostly tasked with cutting inside too. The result is a crowded area, especially when an opponent knows what is coming and packs the defense to counter the four-man front line.
With so many players focused on crowding the box, midfielders Sean Davis and Felipe get sucked in to clean-up duty in advanced positions - roaming for loose balls and turnovers to keep the pressure on up front. They get separated from the back line. The full backs push up to provide width. And there is a lot of space for a counter-attack.
Jesse Marsch insists the 4-2-2-2 will make RBNY more compact and harder to break down on the counter. He knows what he is trying to achieve, and there is no reason to disbelieve him. But right now, he's not getting what he wants out of the 4-2-2-2.
But to abandon the tactic because it didn't work in CCL would be foolish. The team has already sacrificed the biggest prize of the season (MLS teams win MLS Cup every year; not one has lifted the CCL trophy since it became CCL: Champions League is a bigger deal than MLS Cup, even for a team that has never won MLS Cup) in its effort to get its new formation going. The MLS regular season starts on March 5 and offers a clean slate and a more forgiving format: RBNY can lose a few more games in the league and still get what it wants out of the competition.
It might have been the wrong decision to use CCL as a testing ground for a half-baked tactical adjustment, but it would definitely be the wrong decision to abandon that tactic now CCL is off the table. Stubborn belief in the eventual success of this system cost RBNY this year's shot a Champions League; fans and players are owed the chance to see it work - or at least more thoroughly explored. The 4-2-2-2 has to stay, for now. We need to see what was so special it was worth more than a CCL semifinal spot.