The New York Red Bulls' uneven start to MLS 2017 continued on Wednesday, May 3, with a 2-0 road loss to Sporting Kansas City. RBNY is now 4-0-1 at home and 1-4-0 on the road. It has out-scored its opponents at Red Bull Arena 7-1; it has been out-scored on its travels 11-4, and held scoreless on its last two road trips.
This game, however, was distinguished by the fact that Jesse Marsch put out a starting lineup that implied RBNY wasn't necessarily trying as hard as it might to win, or even get a point. Against the second-best team in the Western Conference (now the best) and the best defense in the league, Marsch sent out a second-string. Captain Sacha Kljestan and top-scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips were on the bench. As were four other starters from the team's last game. Right-back Sal Zizzo played the full 90 as a center-back.
Dom Dwyer scored twice; RBNY had a couple of chances but scored not at all.
It was a match the Red Bulls could afford to lose after winning their last three league games, and they took full advantage of that luxury.
There are, of course, thoughts...
1. We were told there would be rotation
Jesse Marsch can be deliberately opaque at times. Sometimes he is misinterpreted. On occasion, he is simply wrong. But there's little evidence he resorts to actively lying. In the build-up to this game, Marsch said there would be rotation as the Red Bulls tried to manage a double-game week - a triple-game week, really, since they will play three games from Saturday (April 29) to Saturday (May 6). There's rarely reason to think Marsch is lying. In this instance, he was being unexpectedly truthful.
The promised rotation arrived in Kansas City.
Even RBNY's "straight-line" formation gimmick (the club's latest theory is that its plans are flexible and it sees no reason to tip its hand or mislead by providing any tactical context to a starting lineup) could not disguise the fact this was the squad not in rotation but in the final stages of a spin cycle.
Out went Kemar Lawrence, Damien Perrinelle, Sacha Kljestan, Daniel Royer, Tyler Adams, and Bradley Wright-Phillips. In came Sal Zizzo, Amir Murillo (making his first-team debut), Derrick Etienne, Fredrik Gulbrandsen, Sean Davis, and Gonzalo Veron. With the exception of Murillo (who was signed to challenge for a starting spot), the new faces have all been starters for the team before - just not all at once.
It wasn't an unthinkable lineup. The front four of Alex Muyl, Etienne, Veron, and Gulbrandsen were neither unknown nor entirely inexperienced, and the midfield of Davis and Felipe were the starters at the beginning of the season. But the defense looked a little vulnerable: Connor Lade, Murillo, and Zizzo are considered the team's primary right-back options. In a pinch, Murillo is known to have played center-back, and Lade also played the position in college. Marsch opted for the avant-garde approach of dropping the one guy on the back-line not known to have any prior experience as a CB in the center of his defense.
Zizzo lined up next to Aaron Long; Lade shuttled over to left back; Murillo was the right-back starter. And the best thing one can say about that selection is it didn't concede a goal in the first half. That was partially down to Ike Opara and Dom Dwyer missing very good chances, and partially down to Luis Robles making some very good saves.
But it was also down to the back-line compensating for experience and chemistry with determination and diligence. Unfortunately, hard work and effort is what puts most pro soccer players on the field. Talent, technique and tactics tend to be the distinguishing differences between winning and losing teams at the higher levels of the game. And it turns out a makeshift starting lineup on the road isn't quite a match for an unchanged, successful, home team.
RBNY's lineup was a big surprise. The result was not.
Still, there is entertainment in novelty, and for 45 minutes it was possible to believe this second-string side could get something out of one of the tougher road trips the Red Bulls will make all year. For 45 minutes the team did challenge KC. It would not have been undeserved if the teams had gone in at half-time tied 2-2. The half-time tie was about right, despite lopsided possession stats favoring KC.
For 45 minutes, it was possible to believe these players would gel, find rhythm and chemistry to prove themselves worthy of the start - not just individually, but collectively - and deliver one of the most gloriously unexpected results of recent RBNY history.
The missteps and blind alleys of the early-season would be forgotten. CONCACAF Champions League sacrificed to the misguided notion the team's senior players would be better in a 4-2-2-2; a frustrating slump as the 4-2-2-2 persisted into the regular season (as it happens, the team in KC looked more 4-2-2-2 than anything else for much of the night); the failure to sign a seasoned center-back to fill the gap on the roster left by Gideon Baah's season-ending injury: all would be forgiven and forgotten. An unlikely triumph is always to be treasured.
But there was no triumph. The loss was all-too predictable in the end. A makeshift lineup that never quite added up to the sum of its parts could neither score nor prevent the other team from scoring. RBNY fans didn't get to celebrate a win, or even a draw.
All we got was what we were promised: rotation.
2. Don't blame Sal Zizzo
The most obvious weakness in the starting lineup was Sal Zizzo: a winger converted to right-back by RBNY and pressed into service as a center-back on this occasion.
Yes, Zizzo missed a header that looked a near-certain goal if it had been on target.
The official MLS boxscore doesn't even record that Zizzo had a shot in the game - which is both a reminder that stats are to support, not supplant, what you have seen with your own eyes, and perhaps a merciful decision to absolve Zizzo of any part in what was arguably RBNY's best chance to get on the board.
But it's not Zizzo's fault the Red Bulls didn't score. If the team's best chance of the night fell to its stand-in center-back, that says more about the chances being created than Zizzo. He made a good run, put himself in a good position and couldn't finish, which is about what is to be expected of a player who has made 73 appearances for RBNY and scored one goal.
Similarly, it is true Zizzo assisted Dom Dwyer on KC's first goal.
But that entire play doesn't happen if Alex Muyl hadn't thoughtfully passed the ball to Benny Feilhaber with time and space to shoot.
And Zizzo might be standing in front of Luis Robles, keeping Dwyer onside and preventing a likely save, but if he moves - the ball's going in because Robles is unsighted. Also, he almost certainly doesn't have any time to process any of that: there's a shot on goal, the net is behind him, his only choice is to block it. Which he does, ineffectively. From this we learn instinctive, all-or-nothing clearances under heavy pressure are not necessarily Zizzo's thing: he's not a center back. (In fairness, a lot of players would have trouble doing much with a shot they have to block to prevent a goal, but also need to keep away from a lurking striker.)
And sure, if you want to pile on - Zizzo missed the chance to intercept the Feilhaber cross that supplied Dom Dwyer's second goal.
Something has gone a little awry at the back when the opposition's primary scoring threat is unmarked about eight yards out from goal. Zizzo has some culpability, but Long missed his effort to intercept the cross too and Michael Murillo didn't read the fact that both center-backs were so focused on Feilhaber they had let Dwyer go unattended.
Mostly, however, Zizzo was not regarded as an option at center-back before the game started and he didn't do a great deal to suggest he is a viable option during the 90 minutes he played. Despite his struggles, despite the fact the fiction that the makeshift back-line could hold KC scoreless for a full game was exposed within a minute of the re-start for the second half: Jesse Marsch did not bolster his defense at all. Damien Perrinelle, Kemar Lawrence, and full-back-capable Tyler Adams all stayed on the bench. Amir Murillo - not inexperienced as a pro-level center-back - stayed at right-back the whole game.
Sal Zizzo didn't have a great game at center-back. But he wasn't playing there on a whim. His coach asked him to do so.
Just as he was asked to play right-back shortly after he joined the Red Bulls in 2015. As he told OaM's Jason Puckett at RBNY Media Day, that was an adjustment that took him a while to make:
Obviously, huge growing pains the first couple years: you know, you play the position and you never played there before. I'm starting to really kind of transition the mindset to being a defender and feel really comfortable.
Zizzo's conversion to right-back has occurred in full view of the RBNY fan base. There is another way to conduct these positional adjustments: Justin Bilyeu has recently had a few games at center-back for NYRB II; teenager Hassan Ndam is a specialist CB learning his trade with the II team. Even Amir Murillo - in possession of several Panama national team caps - was given some time with the reserves to stress-test his adjustment to playing his preferred position (right-back) in the RBNY system.
But for reasons that will doubtless be explained, Marsch chose to sidestep junior players being groomed to play CB, and to deny Zizzo the opportunity to at least get a few reserve team games under his belt in a new position.
Instead, Zizzo was asked to take on an unfamiliar position on the road against an in-form opponent and some of the more challenging attacking players in the league. He almost scored a goal; he almost prevented two from being scored. Almost, but not quite. He came up short on the night - but don't blame Sal Zizzo. Blame whatever circumstances put him in a position where he was more likely to fail than succeed.
3. What was the point?
The point was fairly obvious: faced with a crowded schedule and apparently accepting that some part of the team's shortcomings in the last two playoff campaigns was down to a first-choice team that had maybe got a little stale and tired through overwork, Jesse Marsch was not going through another season with the accusation that he doesn't rotate enough hanging over him.
He has a squad, he is going to use it. And on this occasion, he was willing to take the chance that his team in KC might come up short, because that would allow him to put a fresher, arguably stronger unit against Philadelphia Union, three days after the trip to Kansas.
Marsch will likely say this is why the team is built to have depth at every position. He will likely say he trusts his players, picks those who perform well in training, and he needs these opportunities to test potential every-day starters under some of the toughest conditions the league has to offer.
And he's not wrong. Well, not entirely wrong.
This year in particular - with CONCACAF Champions League places available only to the winners of MLS Cup and US Open Cup - the league is the place to experiment. RBNY has built up a little points cushion after winning three in a row at home, and it will play another three in a row at home once this week is over.
Plus KC is a Western Conference team. And KC is a good team. It would have been no surprise if the Red Bulls lost this game regardless of the lineup, and points lost to teams in the West don't have quite as much significance as those lost to rivals for playoff spots in the East (points all count the same, but there are fewer to be lost or won against teams in the West, and those won in-conference also count as points lost for a fellow Eastern Conference side).
So this was a game where an experiment could be forgiven, or at least understood. RBNY doesn't lack ambition because it gambled with the outcome of its 10th game of the regular season and its only regular-season game of the year against Sporting KC.
So the basic point is clear.
But once the decision was made to go down this path, why wasn't it pursued to its fullest potential? What was gained, for example, by shielding Justin Bilyeu (specialist left back, maybe a future center-back) or Hassan Ndam (starting center-back by 2019, at the latest, at the rate he appears to be developing) from MLS minutes? Either they are injured, or they are somehow a less-good option than Sal Zizzo at center-back. The former is more convincing answer than the latter.
Why ask Kemar Lawrence - who had a brush with concussion last week and was in Jamaica this week to mourn a death in his family - to fly from the Caribbean to Kansas City to watch a game it would seem there was never any great intention to ask him to play? Why risk any injury or fatigue at all to first-choice players like Kljestan, Wright-Phillips and Royer?
Because, perhaps RBNY actually wanted points from this game? Maybe Marsch wasn't willing to entirely trust the second-string to work it out or go down trying? KC scored in the 46th minute. Kljestan was on the field by the 57th and BWP subbed in at the 65th. KC scored again in the 68th, and Royer came on in the 69th. It looked a lot like Marsch trying - a little too late - to salvage at least a point from the game. But if even a point was enough to risk those players at all, to have them fly out to KC on short rest and sub in early enough to work up a sweat - why not play them from the start?
And if they weren't worth risking from the start because the Union game is more important, why risk them at all? How little does a result have to matter for Brandon Allen to get first-team minutes? How desperate does the team need to be for Dan Metzger to get a shot, or Arun Basuljevic to get a little first-team time?
There were other options in the squad, unless the MLS roster's entire staff of II-team regulars has come down with flu.
Marsch's plan for this game was understandable. It will be applauded if a fresher-than-expected RBNY grabs three points from Philadelphia Union on Saturday. But if the point of this match was to rest certain starters and promote players who don't get often get a shot at extended minutes - well, it was a point that wasn't fully explored.