It is no longer 2016.
If there is anything we have learned from watching the 2017 edition of New York Red Bulls II, it is surely that the team is quite different from last season's group. The double-winning II team of 2016 - USL regular-season and Cup champion - is no longer present. The 2017 squad must make its own way.
Currently, the 2017 squad is struggling to find its way out of a persistent and troubling slump. The team has lost three in a row in USL, and is consequently sliding down the standings in the Eastern Conference. It has 11 points from 10 games played, has lost five of those 10 games, and conceded 11 goals in its last three outings alone.
The last statistic is perhaps the most telling: the II team's problem is primarily defense. A predictable problem with hindsight. In 2016, NYRB II had Aaron Long playing his way to the USL Defender of the Year award. It had an MLS-caliber starting 'keeper in Ryan Meara. In midfield, it benefited from the services of Tyler Adams - currently enjoying a very good U-20 World Cup in Korea - and Devon 'Speedy' Williams, an under-rated talent at the USL level, who is helping Louisville City to one of the better starts in the 2017 campaign.
Key players from the 2016 season remain with the squad. Brandon Allen is still a high-volume scorer in USL. Junior Flemmings is showing encouraging signs of a return to full fitness and the sort of form that made him one of the II team's more promising prospects last year. Dan Metzger is still a regular in midfield. Even Derrick Etienne has seen more minutes in USL than might have been expected, since he had looked to be edging into the first team earlier this season.
But the 2017 squad has rookies in key defensive positions - Evan Louro at 'keeper; Hassan Ndam at center-back; Arun Basuljevic in the center midfield - and the team is guilty of rookie mistakes at times. Last week's 4-3 loss to Ottawa Fury being merely a recent example: 3-2 up with minutes remaining, the team shipped two goals in the last three minutes to slump to its first defeat at MSU Soccer Park.
The situation is not irretrievable: the II team has only played 10 league games so far this season. Nor are its present circumstances unusual: this is a development squad formed in 2015 - rookies all over the field is sort of the point of its existence. Sometimes, as in 2016, the roster will gel quickly; sometimes, as in 2015, it will need a little time to find its feet; sometimes, as is happening now, there might be just too many obstructions on the team's path to consistent, positive results. In addition to the loss of some unusually good players from the year before, the squad has had injury problems that have clearly limited competition for places and head coach John Wolyniec's ability to rotate the roster into form.
In the greater scheme of things, it doesn't matter much if NYRB II is good or bad in USL. What matters is that it continues to produce first-team caliber professionals. To that end, this season seems no less promising than preceding years.There is still emerging talent all over the field. If that talent emerges from the context of a middling or even bad season in USL, it makes no great difference: the II team is still owed credit when players step up to the first team, regardless of how good or bad a season in USL they step up from.
And the injuries and needs of the MLS squad have already provided RBNY fans with a glimpse of another exciting prospect in the Academy pipeline. Ben Mines scored his first goal at the pro level against Ottawa, and might have had his first hat-trick in USL with a little more luck. He is not the first Academy prospect to take a chance to shine with the II team, just the latest. The RBNY development pathway still looks crowded with talent.
This week, the II team faces one of the hottest teams in the league. Charleston Battery is top of the USL Eastern Conference with 23 points from 10 games and a +11 goal difference. Top-scorer Romario Williams has eight goals in nine games; leading assist-man Justin Portillo has five helpers in his 10 appearances.
Charleston has a Caribbean core to its roster: Jamaicans Williams and O'Brian Woodbine; Trinidadians Neveal Hackshaw and Ataulla Guerra; Cubans Odisnel Cooper, Maikel Chang and Heviel Cordoves; Antiguan Quinton Griffith. And it benefits from affiliation with Atlanta United. Defender Miles Robinson - the second overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft - has recently been loaned to Charleston from Atlanta. He joins Williams, Jeffrey Otoo, and a clutch of other players sent to the Battery from the fringes of Atlanta United's roster.
Charleston has only lost once so far this season. Its game against NYRB II is the third of a three-match road swing that has so far brought a tie against Harrisburg City Islanders and a win over Bethlehem Steel. Unlike the 2017 II team, the Battery is a team that knows how to hold a lead: three of its last four games have been 1-0 wins.
It is no longer 2016. And perhaps the best signal of that truth is the fact that this feels like the first II team game this season in which the Red Bulls aren't somehow thought to be favorites. The 2017 campaign is advanced enough that last year's reputations and achievements don't have much relevance. The Battery is hot right now; NYRB II is not. And even though the Red Bulls are playing at home, if they don't lose this game it should be regarded as an upset.