The sign this might be a bad night for New York Red Bulls II came inside the first minute: Hassan Ndam slapped a weak clearance off a Harrisburg forward, the ball squirted over to Michael Murillo, and the debutant right back let it glide past him to Manolo Sanchez. The former RBNY man was perhaps as surprised as anyone in the stadium to find himself with a chance so early in the game - and Ryan Meara got out quickly enough to stifle the opportunity.
In the 62nd minute, another mistake at the back provided the game's pivotal moment. A hopeful punt forward from Harrisburg found Murillo with options: Ndam open to his left, or 'keeper Meara available for the long header back toward his own goal. With Sanchez on his shoulder, Murillo opted for a cushioned header back to his 'keeper - but it was too cushioned: Sanchez got to the ball first, got round Meara (stranded outside his box) with ease, and passed into an empty net. The goal put Harrisburg City Islanders 1-0 up, and that was the score at the final whistle.
On the day New York Red Bulls II picked up rings to acknowledge last season's USL Championship title, the team got a reminder that this is a new season.
It's not 2016 anymore, and the unbeaten streak NYRB II was carrying over from last season is snapped. Time to get to work on making 2017 a success.
Three thoughts on the II team's first loss of the 2017 USL campaign:
1. Murillo needs more playing time
It was not the sort of debut expected of Michael Murillo. He is 21 years old, has been playing professional soccer in Panama's top flight since he was 18, and has had regular appearances for his men's national team since 2016. Despite that experience, he appeared slow to react at times, allowed himself to be hurried into a poor decision on the giveaway that created Harrisburg's goal, and will presumably have left the field (he was subbed out in the 68th minute) a disappointed man.
The game was his first competitive appearance for a Red Bulls team, though it's hard to imagine a player who has represented his country being overcome with nerves by a run with the RBNY reserves in a deserted Red Bull Arena. Most likely, it is the familiar explanation: there is no substitute for playing time, a real game is more challenging than training, and he's still getting used to new teammates and the Red Bulls' RalfBall system.
If his first outing in RBNY's shirt proved anything, it proved he needs another one quickly. The uncertainty he showed won't cure itself. He needs time on the field and the regular pressure of competition to produce his best form.
2. Zeiko Lewis is worth your attention
Zeiko Lewis set his hype train rolling himself with his unforgettable Draft Day speech. But after telling most of MLS it would regret letting him fall to the New York Red Bulls (who selected him with the 17th overall pick) at the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Lewis had a preseason in which he looked not unlike Murillo looked in this game: uncertain, trying too hard to play to the system and losing whatever it was that made him attractive to RBNY along the way.
Those days seem an increasingly distant memory. His preseason showing saw RBNY send him to NYRB II on a season-long loan: he's in USL for the whole of 2017, clearly in need of time to polish his game in the Red Bulls' system. He had a good match against Richmond Kickers in his professional debut on April 1, even picking up his first goal. He had a better game against Harrisburg.
While more experienced and more highly-rated players struggled to find form around him, Lewis was a live-wire, sparking the attack, outshining even the relentlessly consistent Vincent Bezecourt. Against a stolid, compact Harrisburg defense, Lewis was facing a familiar problem for the Red Bulls: how to break down a packed-in opponent?
He tried everything: deft touches in the box to wrong-foot defenders and set-up teammates; an audacious "cross" (this observer is convinced he knew exactly what he was aiming for) that very nearly curled into the net at the far post; quick, direct running through the channels. He earned NYRB II's best chance of the night by wriggling past his marker to latch on to a through-ball for a one-on-one with the 'keeper. His chip was off-target, but he did more than enough right on the night to compensate for one weak finish.
Consistency is always the question about players emerging from the NCAA: the college system doesn't provide sufficient minutes for a player to really emerge seasoned and ready for a full year at the pro level. But Lewis has quickly shown he can thrive in USL and in the Red Bulls' system. Now he needs to keep his performances up long enough for his rusty teammates to find their own form - and then the II team could be capable of some very special moments.
3. Seriously, where is everybody?
It starting to look silly now. Yes, the II team welcomed four first-teamers who hadn't previously played in USL this season - Ryan Meara, Alex Muyl, Brandon Allen, and Murillo. And that meant a few regular starters had to hit the bench. Except, not all of them did: Ethan Kutler lost his place to Murillo and Florian Valot was forced out by the Allen-Muyl starting forward pairing - and neither made the II team's match-day squad.
Nor did Stefano Bonomo, Jordan Scarlett, Andrew Lombard, or David Abidor - all players on pro contracts with NYRB II. It was a school night, so maybe that is why the team wasn't supplemented with many Academy players (Kevin O'Toole was part of the squad, however).
For the third consecutive game, NYRB II put out a short bench: 16 players on this occasion, which was the same number that dressed for the preceding game against the Kickers, and two more than the laughable 14-player squad sent to open the season in Pittsburgh. Where is everybody?