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Three Thoughts: Short-handed New York Red Bulls stopped short in Orlando

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RBNY’s 1-0 loss to Orlando City extends the team’s winless streak in MLS 2017 to four games.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Orlando City SC Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls continued their early-season slump in 2017 with a 1-0 road loss to Orlando City on April 9. The result extends the team’s winless streak to four games; four games in which it has now been outscored 8-2.

The Red Bulls were not without chances, and in many ways played better than they have in some time. Indeed, the team’s official Twitter account makes a good point when it notes that Bradley Wright-Phillips might have won a penalty on another day.

But that collision was not deemed a foul, and RBNY cannot blame the referee for the fact Servando Carrasco was allowed to score off a corner, mostly by refusing to allow the Red Bulls control of their own six-yard box.

Improved as the performance might have been from prior drubbings on the road, the result was the same for RBNY: not good enough. The Red Bulls opened this league campaign with back-to-back wins, but haven’t won since. No cause for panic - it is only Game 6 of a 34-game regular-season schedule - but any RBNY fans, players, or staff professing themselves satisfied with current form is backing the team for unorthodox reasons.

To the ever-expanding list of ways and means to fix what is ailing RBNY at the moment, three more thoughts on the team’s latest disappointment:

1. The short bench didn’t cost RBNY the game, but it did cost the team the ability to say it tried everything it could

NYRB II hasn’t fielded a full 18-man match-day squad yet this season. The reserves are supposed to be tactically in sync with the first team, so perhaps it should be no surprise that RBNY followed the example set by its USL side and put out a short bench to face Orlando.

First and foremost, the one-short squad can be taken as evidence that the club is once again the Banged-Up Bulls. The current squad is officially 27 players. Cut that to 26 because Anatole Abang is on loan to SJK in Finland, and it seems to have already been established that he isn’t coming back to RBNY regardless of whether he’s actively on loan or not.

Of the remaining 26, Gideon Baah is on the season-ending injury list and both Mike Grella and Gonzalo Veron are out until further notice. Jesse Marsch had 24 players to choose from for this game, and three of them - Fredrik Gulbrandsen, Aurelien Collin, and Connor Lade - were injury concerns in the build-up to the trip to Orlando.

Clearly, Gulbrandsen and Collin made it back to fitness in time for the match, but Lade had been described as a “game-time decision” and game time revealed the decision: he wasn’t ready to play.

Marsch still had 23 players to choose from, and if Lade’s condition was known to be uncertain, it would perhaps have been prudent to take another body to Orlando, just in case. Instead, it would seem, RBNY decided five players were either not ready or not required for MLS action, and made its plans for Florida based on 17 players plus the notion Lade might be fit in time (which didn’t pan out).

Of the group of five players on the MLS roster from which one more sub for Orlando might have been picked, four were loaned down to NYRB II for its game against St. Louis FC on April 8, and Hassan Ndam was rested. So it would seem the first team was committed to a pool of 18 players - doubts over Lade notwithstanding - for Florida well in advance of kick-off on April 9.

One can see the team’s case for the decision. Not necessarily agree with it, but at least understand it.

Two of the MLS-contracted players sent to the II team for the weekend - Dan Metzger and Arun Basuljevic - are central midfielders. RBNY is stacked at that position, with Tyler Adams and Felipe the incumbent starters, Sean Davis fighting to regain his place in the lineup, and Sacha Kljestan able to drop back to one of the deeper-lying CM spots if required. Metzger has been on the first team bench already this season, and Basuljevic looks like he could handle minutes in MLS - but both weren’t likely to add much to RBNY’s efforts in Orlando barring an extraordinary spate of injuries on the day. Fine: send them to St. Louis for playing time.

A similar argument can be made for Justin Bilyeu. He’s an option to deputize at left back for Kemar Lawrence in the first team, but there is also an effort being made to convert him to center back, or at least bolster his experience at that position. That effort is happening with the II team. The RBNY squad in Orlando had Michael Murillo on the bench as cover for right back; starting RB Sal Zizzo has covered the LB spot before; CB Aaron Long can play full back: Marsch had options if there was an issue at either full back position in Florida. Extending Bilyeu’s run at center back with the II team made sense this weekend.

Center back Hassan Ndam played 90 minutes for NYRB II on Wednesday, April 5, and was rested for the game against St. Louis. For some observers, this suggested he might be penciled in for a bench-spot with the first team in Orlando. But he’s also 18 years old, only has three pro appearances to his name to date, and RBNY had a seasoned CB option - Damien Perrinelle - in its MLS match-day squad. Resting Ndam made sense too.

That leaves Brandon Allen, who picked up a goal and an assist for NYRB II in St. Louis. Allen too has been on the bench for RBNY already this season, but didn’t make the field. He was an obvious candidate for playing time with the reserves, and his presence in the II team’s lineup didn’t raise any eyebrows until RBNY showed up in Orlando with only 17 players ready to play.

Allen can’t do what Lade does for RBNY - he’s a forward, not a full back - but the Red Bulls didn’t really need Connor Lade in Orlando anyway. What they needed and couldn’t find for 90 minutes was a goal.

One can certainly understand why Jesse Marsch doesn’t appear ready to trust Allen with first team minutes. The RBNY Homegrown player does not have any manifestly exceptional qualities: he is not super quick, or incredible in the air, nor blessed with incredible technique. In that way, he resembles Bradley Wright-Phillips, who one would rate as better at most things than Allen, but not exceptional when judged against a broader spectrum of players. Except what makes BWP special is what makes Allen special: goals.

Allen lacks BWP’s experience and is nowhere close to the RBNY all-time scoring leader’s track record in MLS or even as a pro in general. But, despite it being difficult to explain why, Allen scores goals. And those goals - record-setting hauls for his high school, the RBNY Academy, and Georgetown University - are why he is a pro player. As a pro, he set all-time single-season and career scoring records for NYRB II in his rookie season.

There is the sense that a lot of scouts have probably bet against Allen panning out at a higher level for a long time, but he’s met the challenge to raise his game with the same response at every step since high school: with goals.

In fairness, his knack for scoring is not an inexplicable mystery. He showed what he does best with his goal against St. Louis the day before RBNY drew a blank in Orlando.

Well covered by two defenders, Allen simply made a late dart into space when the cross was on.

He made his MLS debut on May 28, 2016, against Toronto FC. He put the ball in the net in that game, but was offside. (Start from 3:30 on the highlights video.)

Those seven minutes against TFC remain Allen’s only first-team time.

As stated, one can understand how RBNY ended up with a short bench against Orlando. One can also understand why Marsch only used two subs in the match: the team needed a goal, in came Alex Muyl and Gulbrandsen - the two attacking players on the bench - and Game 6 of 34 is maybe not the time to experiment with the ability of Murillo, Davis, Perrinelle, or back-up ‘keeper Ryan Meara to play emergency center forward.

But a team that has long wanted more scoring options, and prides itself on commitment to giving youth its shot, appears to have a peculiar blind spot at the forward position. Anatole Abang has been exiled - apparently on the basis of 221 mostly disappointing minutes in MLS 2016 after a promising rookie season the year before. Brandon Allen has become a sort of internal exile: scoring goals on the regular for the II team, but finding RBNY never quite desperate enough to give him a chance in MLS, beyond his seven-minute debut last May.

This observer wouldn’t be in a hurry to throw Allen into MLS either, but early-season games when RBNY needs a goal but can live with the loss seem like good opportunities to test a depth option up front when the proven players are having a difficult day.

Clearly, Marsch is more comfortable with a short bench than even pretending he’s ready to put Allen on the field - and credit the coach for not wasting a player’s time with false hope.

We don’t know exactly why RBNY ended up in Orlando with a short bench; since it’s an uncommon occurrence, we can guess the team would prefer to have dressed 18 for the game. We can’t say that decision cost the team points. Nor can we say the decision to leave behind a group of back-ups and rookies is hard to understand.

Analysis is hindsight and Marsch is getting a little pummeling here for events only known after the fact. But those events were RBNY heading into a competitive game with one less player than permitted, subbing in one less player than permitted, and scoring one less goal than desired. And under those circumstances, it cannot be said the team left it all on the field in Florida. It didn’t bring everything with it to start.

2. The 4-2-3-1 is back, for now

After the game, Jesse Marsch told reporters “that looked like us” - and one aspect in which his team did indeed look a little more like its old self was an apparent return to its old preferred formation, the 4-2-3-1, from the start.

It is a formation that has brought the team success since it switched over to it under Mike Petke in 2014 and found momentum for a run to the Eastern Conference playoff final after a frustratingly patchy half-season trying to recapture the magic of 2013’s 4-4-2.

Marsch has a different task than Petke, and part of that task would seem to be to more fully align his team with the Red Bull set-ups in Salzburg and Leipzig by getting the New York Red Bulls to find their way into a 4-2-2-2 formation, which has been a signature part of the Euro RB tactical plan for several years.

Whether by RB Global mandate or simply Marsch’s own stylistic preferences, the effort to switch RBNY to a 4-2-2-2 in New York has been persistent. It was attempted in 2016, and abandoned after a horrific start to the season. It has been tried again in 2017, and we’ll have to wait and see whether the game-plan in Orlando was an exception or a return to the prior rule of 4-2-3-1.

It would be a somewhat unexpected decision if it is the case that Marsch has had enough of laboring over the 4-2-2-2 for a second consecutive season. Unexpected because RBNY appeared to invest a great deal in the second attempt at the new formation.

In a year that started with CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, the team might have been expected to keep its faith in a mostly-winning system, utilizing the core of players it had on the roster in the set-up that has brought a lot more wins than losses over the last two seasons. But it didn’t do that.

Instead, RBNY opted to focus its preseason on the 4-2-2-2. And it jettisoned a few senior players of the past couple of seasons - Dax McCarty foremost among them - in favor of promoting and acquiring younger talent. Those decisions cost RBNY the chance of entering the year in anything resembling its best form of last season: it had cast aside many of the tools used to achieve that form. Perhaps predictably, there has been a stuttering start to 2017: a quick exit from CCL, a couple of narrow wins (including a very fortunate one in Atlanta), and the current four-game winless streak.

That sort of start does justify a change of plan. At the same time, the effort expended thus far makes it a little peculiar to see the team apparently back away from its focus on the 4-2-2-2 in just its sixth league game of the season.

Last year, there were some very good reasons to abandon the 4-2-2-2 project. Gonzalo Veron was the fulcrum of the formation, and he got injured at the end of preseason - absent an obvious replacement, it made sense to go back to what the rest of the squad had already proved it was good at. Plus, the team was really, really bad for month and a half of 2016. It didn’t just lose five of its first six league games - it was shut out in all five losses. The exception - a 4-3 win over Houston - also happened to be the game in which Veron made a brief return to the field (and limped out injured mid-way through the first half).

There were the usual efforts to cling to bright spots during last year’s dismal start, mostly centered on the fact RBNY was creating plenty of scoring chances. But good teams don’t just create chances, they convert them. We don’t traditionally applaud soccer that consistently fails to provide goals or wins, and there is no reason to make excuses for a losing team. Especially one losing as frequently as RBNY was in March and April last year.

But the team turned itself around - mostly by retreating to what it already knew it was good at: the 4-2-3-1.

But for some time, the squad seems to have been being rebuilt around players who might function well in the 4-2-2-2. Daniel Royer was acquired in 2016, but arrived with a fresh commitment to the RB “90 minutes, full power” soccer philosophy. Fredrik Gulbrandsen was shipped in from Salzburg with knowledge and experience of at least one side of the way the Red Bulls do their RalfBalling in Europe. One might even characterize the recruitment of Veron in 2015 as an early signal of the team’s tactical intentions.

Even the decision to offload Dax McCarty can in part be framed as unburdening the team of a player whose proven ability and drive for success might be a hindrance to a squad trying to execute a shift to a new tactic. As things stand, RBNY is already accused of misusing BWP and Sacha Kljestan, neither of whom look allowed to do their best work when the team is playing 4-2-2-2. McCarty might have been a third such star-player millstone around RBNY’s neck during the transition - and as a vocal club captain, perhaps there was concern he’d have the squad on his side if and when he tired of watching results slip away while the new system tried to assert itself.

It feels like a lot has been sacrificed to get RBNY ready for the big switch to 4-2-2-2 in 2017. Last year, the team had three points after seven games in the league - and that was already a big enough hole that it took most of the rest of the season for the Red Bulls to clamber back to the security of a guaranteed playoff place. (And once they did that, they kicked on to win the Eastern Conference - because who doesn’t enjoy a worst-to-first transition inside a single season?)

This year, however, the team has seven points from six games. Yes, it is winless in its last four, and scoreless in two of those outings, but it didn’t get its 10th point of 2016 until Game 10 - and it has three consecutive home games coming up: disappointing as RBNY has been to date in 2017, it is unbeaten at Red Bull Arena this season and should back itself to get to 10 points before it has played 10 league games this year.

The 4-2-2-2 didn’t disappear entirely in Orlando, and may not be gone for good this season either. It is encouraging to see RBNY actively shaking itself up on the field to try to break out of a slump, but it should also be noted the team is in a better place than it was in 2016, and better prepared for the 4-2-2-2 switch than it was before.

All we can do is watch what unfolds this season, but don’t be surprised if RBNY hasn’t given up on the 4-2-2-2 just yet.

3. Time to go home

All the fussing over RBNY’s personnel and formations above overlooks probably the most significant factor in the current slump: the Red Bulls have played three of their last four games on the road.

MLS teams famously struggle away from home for a variety of reasons; the best teams in a given year are usually defined by their home form rather than what they do on the road (until the playoffs, which is a different sort of competition anyway). The Red Bulls have lost three away games in a row - but what made 2016 such a bad start in MLS was not the four consecutive road losses RBNY suffered, but the fact it lost two of its first three home games.

The Red Bulls were bad pretty much anywhere it played for most of the early stage of last season. In 2017, despite the team not looking much better than it did at the same time last year, results have been kinder to RBNY. It hasn’t lost at RBA yet.

The slump-busting tonic the Red Bulls needed a year ago came in the form of back-to-back home games: after beating Orlando and Dallas by a combined score of 7-2, they never really looked back, losing just three times in the league over the rest of 2016. And despite that resurgence - just three losses out of 27 regular-season games played after the horrendous start - RBNY only won three away matches in MLS 2016. The Shield-winning team of 2015 won only six.

As it happens, the road-record of the 2015 squad was identical to that of the 2013 Shield-winning team: 6-7-4. And the away-day records of the 2014 and 2016 RBNY teams (both arguably remembered for a decline in league form from the year before) were also identical: 3-7-7.

The Red Bulls haven’t really had a bad year in MLS since moving to Red Bull Arena, but the last four seasons have been particularly good. Worth noting most of the good so fondly remembered was achieved at home.

The Red Bulls play six of their next eight league games at Red Bull Arena: two three-in-a-row home stands sandwiching a couple of away matches in the first week of May. The results of the next six home games will have a far greater bearing on the perceived success or failure of RBNY than the present stretch of losses on the road.