Only four games into 2017, the all-conquering season New York Red Bulls II enjoyed in 2016 is a quickly receding memory. The team lost just three games in the regular season last year; in its new campaign, it has lost the last two.
In their defense, the Red Bulls reserves are not built for season-to-season consistency: the team's job is to produce players for the first team, over the short, medium, and long terms. Almost every lineup the side has ever put out since it started playing in USL in 2015 reflects that goal, typically blending MLS-contracted players with those attached directly to the II team, accompanied by a garnish of promising Academy prospects. How the unit performs on the field is never quite as important as the case each individual player makes for being advanced to the next career milestone - be that more time, more starts, a pro contract, another year in USL, or a step up to match-day minutes in MLS. Rotation is the norm for the II team, often for reasons indiscernible to anyone but the coaches and the players affected.
Inconsistent results should be the rule for NYRB II; last year's record-breaking run to the USL Cup, the exception. We will see how this season pans out, but presently it looks set to fall back to expectations. Collective performances have not been terrible, individuals have already started to assert themselves, but it is currently all adding up to an entertaining but unpredictable team.
In four games played, two - against Pittsburgh (a 3-3 draw) and St. Louis FC (a 3-2 loss) - have seen the II team's attack fire into form long enough to wreak some havoc on the opposing defense, only to be undone by a fragile, error-prone back line. The other two have seen the forwards struggle to find the net (the 1-0 win over Richmond and the 1-0 loss to Harrisburg), while the defense proved a little sturdier.
That said, the story of the last two games has unquestionably been errors at the back. Michael Amir Murillo was not signed to play for the reserves, but the 21-year-old does need playing time so he got a start against Harrisburg. He put in an uneven performance, low-lighted by a poorly-judged effort to head the ball back to his 'keeper that let Manolo Sanchez in for Harrisburg's game-winner.
Against St. Louis, it was Justin Bilyeu's turn to have a game to forget. He was outmuscled and outsmarted by Christian Volesky early in the match, letting the St. Louis striker in for the game's opening goal. And one could attribute both the other goals NYRB II conceded in that match to defensive miscues, such as failing to respond well to pressure on the back line and poor decision-making with regard to positioning and spacing.
All issues that can be fixed, and all issues that should be addressed in the reserves and not the first team. If Murillo needs a little more time to master the RBNY system, he should be getting it in USL. Likewise, the apparent decision to explore Bilyeu's ability to switch from left-back to center-back is one that ought to be thoroughly tested in II team games. There are doubtless other players in the squad who will make similar errors throughout the year - just as there were in 2015 and 2016. The difference between 2016 and what should be probably be regarded as a more typical year for NYRB II is that the errors didn't often cost the team the game, or it was at least able to scramble back for a point. We'll see how 2017 pans out.
The II team has been short-handed for every game it has played so far this year, so the primary question of the match-day squad is "how many players are in it"?
Given ongoing fitness concerns in the first team and the fact it is playing the day after this match, it will be no surprise if NYRB II once again sends out fewer than 18 players for a game in USL.
Of the players expected to feature for the II team, Vincent Bezecourt has been in particularly good form in the early stages of the season, tallying three goals. Zeiko Lewis is showing signs of adapting well to RBNY's RalfBall style. Teenage center-back Hassan Ndam has already revealed why the Red Bulls put him on an MLS contract straight out of high school.
Speaking to reporters after training on Thursday - catch his whole chat over at Seeing Red Daily's invaluable service to RBNY fans - RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch confirmed a number of fringe first-teamers would be in the II-squad: in addition to Lewis (season-long loan to the USL team) and the aforementioned Ndam, expect Murillo and Bilyeu to continue their respective quests to prove themselves first-team ready. Brandon Allen should continue to lead the line up front; Arun Basuljevic will keep his place in midfield. Marsch said midfielder Dan Metzger was "a question" - though it is unclear if that question is over fitness or need to provide cover for the first team.
Marsch also noted that he might have an eye on one or two of the MLS-contracted crew playing for the II team this weekend for his own match-day squad on April 15. So expect to see minutes limited for some players.
The entire II team is still finding its way. Perhaps fortunately, it is up against another team having an up-and-down start to the year.
OCB's five goals this season have been spread evenly across four players and one own goal. But the team's standout attacking threat is 18-year-old Pierre da Silva, who has provided two assists in three appearances to date. The US youth international is a bright prospect and should be returned to the lineup after sitting out OCB's last game - a 1-1 tie with Charlotte Independence - due to suspension.
The squad includes a number of promising young players, including defender Conor Donovan and forward Albert Dikwa - USA and Cameroon youth internationals, respectively. Dikwa scored his first goal of the season against Charlotte.
He and teammate Jules Youmeni, a full-back, might be familiar to NYRB II's Hassan Ndam - not because all three players are from Cameroon, but because all three were at Florida's Montverde Academy before turning pro this season.
OCB has tended to bolster its reserve team with some veterans, and this season is no exception. Thirty-five-year-old midfielder Lewis Neal is permanently assigned to the B-team roster, and has played three full games so far in USL 2017. Kevin Alston has also made three appearances for OCB this season, though the 28-year-old full-back surely would prefer to be getting his playing time in MLS.
RBNY fans ought to remember Zach Carroll - a Red Bulls draft pick in 2016, he was a II-team stalwart last season. The center-back is with OCB this season and getting regular minutes so far. If you blinked, you missed full-back Scott Thomsen's stint as a Red Bull, but he was briefly on a Homegrown player contract last year. Released in March by RBNY as part of the final wave of preseason cuts, Thomsen joined Richmond Kickers in July - and now he is an OCB player.
Two teams that have had shaky starts to 2017 meet on a Friday evening at NYRB II's new home, MSU Soccer Park, in the company of the club's latest innovation: $1 hot dog night.
Given both teams' respective early-season inconsistencies, cheap eats are perhaps the only guarantee for those attending this game.
Guessing that Rafa Diaz's absence from the lineup in recent weeks has more to do with fitness than form, and maybe he gets a chance to play at MSU Soccer Park after Evan Louro got the start in the team's inaugural game at his new home. And also guessing Junior Flemmings continues to be held out of the starting lineup and allowed to gently return to form and full fitness after a long injury lay-off.
NYRB II: Rafa Diaz; David Najem, Justin Bilyeu, Hassan Ndam, Amir Murillo; Arun Basuljevic, Dan Metzger; Vincent Bezecourt, Zeiko Lewis; Florian Valot, Brandon Allen
Expect to see Pierre da Silva slot back into OCB's lineup after sitting out the team's last outing.
Orlando City B - lineup vs Charlotte Independence: