New York Red Bulls II took a beating on the road against Charlotte Independence on May 11, 2017.
It was the team's third loss of the season, but the first time it hasn't at least been close to getting something out of a match. On April 5, NYRB II lost 1-0 to Harrisburg City Islanders, courtesy of an unfortunate defensive error. On April 8, a goal in the 84th minute consigned the II team to a 3-2 loss to St. Louis FC. In both cases, one could argue the Red Bulls were a little unfortunate to lose. And one can even argue they were unfortunate to tie Pittsburgh Riverhounds (3-3 on March 25) and Rochester Rhinos (2-2 on April 22), since both draws saw the II team leading late on the road, only for the home team to rally for an equalizer.
But there are no unfortunate 5-1 losses and the II team lost 5-1 to Charlotte Independence - the bottom team in the USL Eastern Conference until it had the good fortune of playing NYRB II.
Looking for excuses for the limp performance, this observer had the impression that referee Danielle Chesky perhaps was too inclined to accept the suggestion of the Independence forwards that every brush or nudge from NYRB II was a hard foul, but the foul count was not that lopsided (10 called against Charlotte; 16 against NYRB II) and the ref handed the first two yellow cards of the game to Charlotte players (and the last - ultimately, each team had thee men in the book by the end of the match).
So scratch referee influence as an explanation for the Red Bulls' bad day. The team simply struggled to cope with just about every aspect of the Independence attack.
The II team had looked the likelier winner in the early stages of the first half. Both teams had their chances in the opening phase of the game, but it was Junior Flemmings who opened the scoring - thanks to his ability to push the defense back on the dribble and Independence 'keeper Cody Mizell's slow reflexes.
Brandon Allen missed the chance to make it 2-0, but the way the Independence back line parted to let the RBNY forward pick his spot suggested it would be a long day for Charlotte.
And even after the Independence equalized, there was the sense the Red Bulls weren't far away from finding another goal.
Instead, Charlotte scored again and took a lead into the break, but the half-time stats aligned with the impression it was an even game.
With hindsight, however, Charlotte's first-half goals were a clue all was not right with NYRB II. The equalizer was the result of a goalkeeping error no less egregious than Mizell's flubbed save that allowed Flemmings' opener to squeeze in.
Have a look at Herrera's equalizer. pic.twitter.com/3hr1DP5jDJ— Independence (@CLTIndependence) May 11, 2017
The go-ahead goal echoed the chance Allen had missed off a set-piece when NYRB II was still leading the game, except it was a little more difficult than the open header the Red Bulls forward had skied.
Add those up and maybe it should have been clear the Independence was a little sharper than the II team in front of goal, and no less able to find defensive weaknesses than the Red Bulls were at the other end.
And so it proved. In the second half, Charlotte trampled NYRB II, finishing the game with 23 shots, of which 17 were on target. The II team mustered eight, and only three on goal.
The home team came out of the break hot, and found its third goal with almost embarrassing ease.
Keeping the Independence from scoring a fourth became more a matter of luck than judgement.
And eventually that luck ran out.
The fifth goal was neither insult nor injury. The 5-1 win was just reward for a dominating second-half performance from Charlotte.
I wasn't asking for it but it was delivered. https://t.co/4SV3e5hCbE— Señor Soccer (@JuanMapu) May 12, 2017
Three thoughts on NYRB II's worst loss of the season to date:
1. 18 players!
It took the loan of first-teamer Derrick Etienne to the squad - bumping up the number of MLS-contracted players in the starting lineup to seven - and two Academy prospects (Ben Mines and Kaz Shigenobu) on the bench, but NYRB II finally put out an 18-man squad for a game in USL.
It will be a surprise if the days of short squads are over, and evidently just turning up with the correct number of players doesn't in itself guarantee a good performance. Still, every game NYRB II turned up to play shorthanded was a reminder that the team is not at its absolute best. A short squad implies less competition for places, players picked to start for no better reason than they are available, and tactical options constrained by the lack of roster depth.
In principle, the II team is one of the deepest in USL, since it can draw on RBNY's first-team and Academy squads, as well as those players it has signed exclusively to its roster. In principle, almost every position on the field is contested by a player contracted to the MLS squad, one signed by NYRB II, and an emerging Academy prospect. But the first team and Academy have their own priorities, and the II team has had some bad luck with injuries - and that has led to a succession of short-handed squads for USL games.
NYRB II's priority is player development, not results. It can lose every match 5-1 and still be serving its primary purpose well. But competition for places is as important to this stage of player development as it is to having a strong team on match day. A starting spot is not so well-earned if it is born of necessity rather than merit, and the longer the pattern of short squads persisted, the harder it was to imagine that players on the II team were being exposed to the usual incentives and pressures of the professional game.
So the II team's first 18-man squad of 2017 may have coincided with its worst result of the season, but it is nonetheless a positive step for this year's roster.
2. Junior Flemmings should play more
Flemmings' recovery from the injury that curtailed his 2016 season also accounted for most of his 2017 preseason, and the sense that he is still being protected a little. He has had regular appearances so far this year, playing seven of the II team's eight games this season. But only four of those were starts and he has totaled just 346 minutes in those seven matches - fewer than four full games.
He took a hard knock in this match and stayed down long enough to remind us that he may still be fragile. But he also provided reminders of what he offers the Red Bulls.
Flemmings has a combination of size, speed, technical ability, and a goal scorer's instincts that is rare in the RBNY squad. There is much he can improve upon, as one would expect of a 21-year-old player contracted to an MLS club's reserve team - but it is surely a priority of the II team's coaching staff to see those improvements made.
There is no suggestion that NYRB II is hindering or mismanaging Flemmings' development. He was injured, and needed to be allowed to recover. It is possible he started playing competitive minutes a little sooner than might have been ideal this season thanks to the II team's persistent short-handedness, thus the limited minutes and a few rusty and forgettable appearances.
But this game provided another reminder of his potential and further reason to hope that he is returning to the sort of physical condition in which he can do his best work.
3. The II team and the first team have the same problem
NYRB II is current fifth in the USL Eastern Conference standings. It has won three, lost three and drawn two. Eleven points from eight games is not a terrible record, nor is it great. Much like the first team, which has 16 points from 11 matches in MLS and is fifth in its Conference.
RBNY is currently unbeaten at home, but has lost five straight on the road after opening the season with a (fortunate) away win in Atlanta. NYRB II has won all three of its games at MSU Soccer Park, its new home ground, but has yet to win at any other stadium - including Red Bull Arena, the venue it used to call home.
Despite playing in different leagues and utilizing different players and coaching staffs, both Red Bulls pro teams have the same problem: they aren't winning on the road. And after NYRB II's 5-1 loss to Charlotte and RBNY's 3-0 loss to Philadelphia Union - their two most recent road results - it feels as though the teams are getting worse away from home rather than better.
Other than their struggles on the road, the only obvious thing the two teams have in common is their commitment to a common tactical vision. A tactical vision that is now broadly understood by their respective opponents. Teams in USL and MLS know what the Red Bulls will try to do, and can plan for it accordingly. This has been the case for a while now, but in 2015 there was something of an element of surprise - since it was the Red Bulls' first year of RalfBall - and RBNY rode that to the Supporters' Shield. In 2016, NYRB II demonstrated what can be achieved when players are well-matched with each other and the system: the team ultimately ran away with the USL regular-season title and Cup.
In 2017, both RBNY teams seem to be at a bit of a loss to compensate for the absence of home advantage. They are different teams with different specific issues, but they are looking at the same basic problem: they're just not as effective outside their home ground.
Insofar as the problem is tactical (and some portion of it surely is), it's worth watching both teams to see whether one figures out its road issues before the other, and whether there is any effort to apply the solution - when and if it is found - to both squads.