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Three Thoughts: New York Red Bulls fall flat against Philadelphia Union, lose 3-0

RBNY graciously gifted Philadelphia its first win of MLS 2017 with 10 slapstick minutes that handed the Union three goal and three points.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It is true the New York Red Bulls had little luck in this game. Over in Seattle, Jozy Altidore got a match-winning penalty for Toronto FC when Roman Torres fell all over him in the box:

Kemar Lawrence was not given the same respect when Ray Gaddis crashed into him as he was trying to divert a cross into the net:

Gaddis led a charmed existence until he was eventually forced off the field by what appeared to be an injury sustained when he executed a tackle so late and so clumsy on Lawrence that it was little more than a wild hack at the RBNY left-back's knees.

Maybe the game would have ended differently if the penalty kick or red card Gaddis' antics deserved had been seen, but there were many other chances for RBNY to at least get on the score sheet, and only a few of them were denied by some superlative goalkeeping from Andre Blake.

Ultimately, the Red Bulls have only themselves to blame for a 3-0 loss to Philadelphia Union. They had prioritized this game, sending out a second-string - or whatever string Sal Zizzo at center-back represents - to lose in Kansas City in mid-week. Rotation was certainly necessary during a tough three-games-in-a-week stretch, but Jesse Marsch took the gamble that risking a loss on Wednesday would give him the fresh lineup he thought he needed for a win on Saturday. He lost the bet.

The Red Bulls were arguably the better team for most of the time the match remained scoreless. It was a chippy, staccato game of the sort one might expect when the home team hasn't won all season and the visitors like to play for fouls and set-piece opportunities. But the Union was never convincingly out-played. Both teams had their moments, but Philadelphia's proved the more telling.

In the 74th minute, Aaron Long made a mistake - an unusual event in itself for a defender who has been a model of consistency since stepping into the starting lineup at the beginning of the season. His misjudgment of a ball in the air gave CJ Sapong the chance to run at the back-line. Long was in position to block the shot, but only got enough on it to deflect the ball past Luis Robles.

The game seemed to have shifted a little before Sapong struck, with the Union drawing the best save of the night from Robles just a few minutes earlier.

The next time Sapong got that close to goal, in the 81st minute, he didn't miss:

An unfortunate handball in the box saw Damien Perrinelle concede a penalty - and Sapong got his hat-trick from the spot in the 85th minute.

The Union won its first game in MLS 2017 at RBNY's expense, and the Red Bulls must puzzle out what is causing the team's continuing struggles on the road. They predicted this game in their preparations for it: physical and disjointed, an opponent as desperate not to lose as it was to win. But they came up short on the day.

Next up, there are three home games to play - accounting for the rest of the remaining May schedule. The Red Bulls won't have to worry about their road problems again until June, but they do now have to make sure that those problems don't follow them back to Harrison.

Three thoughts on the latest RBNY road loss of 2017:

1. It didn't work

Faced with three games in a week, Jesse Marsch had to make some decisions about managing minutes and demands on his players. He opted for what we might call the "empty sandwich" rotation policy: full-strength lineup against Chicago on April 29; more-or-less second string team against Sporting Kansas City on May 3; back to pretty much full strength for Philadelphia on May 6.

There are no guarantees in soccer and the only truth it seems reasonable to draw from RBNY's recent games is it simply isn't very good on the road. Marsch could have tried all manner of alternative approaches and found they all pointed to the same results: a win at home and two losses away. Losing on the road has become the Red Bulls' habit of late, and Marsch clearly hasn't found a solution for the problem yet.

Credit him for trying: resting key starters for the Kansas City game was not a wild idea. But it was one that risked being accused of throwing one game to win the next - and if the next wasn't won, then it invited the charge of having bungled the assignment.

The Red Bulls were outscored 5-0 over two games: it's impossible to say Marsch's plan was a success. And "at least he tried" is too low a bar for a coach who was judged the league's best as recently as 2015. All coaches try, the best are distinguished by their success.

So this game and this week were not Marsch's greatest moment, and if that is criticism (rather than simple observation), it is as deserved as would have been the praise if RBNY had beaten Philadelphia.

It happens: coaches try things to break a particular habit; if it doesn't work, they try something else. The regular-season schedule won't present this particular challenge again - there are no more road games clustered together the way the KC and Philly trips were this week. But a run in US Open Cup or an awkward seed in the playoffs could conceivably generate similar circumstances. If that happens, we'll find out whether once was enough or Marsch wants to serve up his empty sandwich again. If not, this approach won't be seen again this season - at least not for the specific reasons conjured by the last week.

In the meantime, he has a new problem to address: RBNY hasn't scored in its last three road games and it has lost on its last five away days. He's tried the 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1, more selective pressing schemes, old favorites and new faces in key positions: nothing is working at the moment. Indeed, it would appear to be getting worse. This 3-0 loss was preceded by a 2-0 loss in Kansas City, and the road trip before that saw the team lose 1-0 in Orlando: one can't convincingly say things are getting better on the road for RBNY.

Marsch has presided over some tough stretches with the Red Bulls before. We know enough about his coaching style and methodology to know he favors a don't-panic-trust-the-process approach. He has been a little more inclined to make adjustments - or at least, admit to them in public - this season than in the past, but there's no great sense that Marsch has abandoned his habits.

His team is as good at home as it is bad on the road. If he knew why that was, it would be fair to assume the problem would have been resolved. His latest attempt to fix RBNY's away-day issues was not successful. For now, that is all that need be said. If the Red Bulls remain strong at home, they at least provide themselves cover for their struggles on the road. Marsch must now focus on winning points at Red Bull Arena that continue to elude his team elsewhere in the league.

As long as what has been working in Harrison still works against LA, Toronto, and New England, the problem is contained for now. And the longer it is contained, the better the chance of seeing it fixed before it comes to define the season.

2. Amir Murillo is ready (and Mike Grella is fit again)

One good thing to emerge from the loss to Philadelphia was the performance of Michael Amir Murillo. He showed particularly well in attack, with crossing that deserved better finishing than it got and an unexpectedly good eye for a pass into the final third.

Jesse Marsch has repeatedly insisted Murillo's work in training has made clear he should be given time in MLS. Over the last couple of games, we've seen a little of what Marsch is talking about. Murillo is an option to start at right-back for RBNY. Not the only option, nor the obvious first-choice, but it will no longer be surprising if he starts a game - and one good game tends to earn another start under Marsch.

Another positive from the Philadelphia game: Mike Grella got about 15 minutes off the bench. He didn't make any great impact, but it was his first competitive appearance since March. In mid-week, Gonzalo Veron made his first start since returning from the injury he sustained in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

We will have to wait until the mid-week reports out of training deliver news of any new or recurring injuries in the squad, but it feels like the Red Bulls at least got a little deeper during this otherwise forgettable week.

3. Time to go home

On April 29, the Red Bulls  won their third straight of a three-game home stand. The team appeared confident, finally free of the early-season issues that had seen it bounced out of CCL and slump into a four-game winless streak after an encouraging start to MLS 2017.

Now it is clear those problems are not entirely vanished. The Red Bulls remain fragile on the road. But they have another three-game home stand ahead: another chance to rebuild confidence and momentum. It is time to go back to Red Bull Arena. It is time to start winning again.