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The Next Three Points: Real Salt Lake

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Brit Byrd checks in with his weekly review of the three criteria he laid out by which to evaluate the team and its management in 2020, this week in reaction to the 1-1 draw in Sandy against Real Salt Lake:

Week 2

D, Real Salt Lake 1-1

TACTICS

Last week’s concerns proved to be well founded, as RBNY’s offensive fluidity and production fell off a cliff when faced with a slightly more competent opponent. After the final whistle I racked my brain to think of any chances aside from the wonder strike from Cristian Casseres Jr., and came up blank. Thankfully I found an Expected Goals chart to give me a sanity check.

While xG measurements are not an exhaustive tool, like many statistics they’re useful at the extreme ends of the bell curve - and boy do we have such a case this week. With an identical lineup, the front four struggled to combine together both qualitatively and quantitatively, and produced little either through build-up play or forcing turnovers through the press.

Low possession numbers are nothing new for a Red Bull team, but unfortunately this week’s figure was driven by long spells of chasing the ball, rather than the rapid churn of possession and contested second-balls in 2018.

One exception was a five minute spell of possession to start the second half. However, this probably rang alarm bells for anyone closely watching the last 18 months of RBNY soccer. Straight out of the half-time talk, this spell of possession intended to control and pacify the game was aimless and only lasted five minutes before ceding to RSL dictating the game on the ball. If this was a reflection of the manager’s tactical adjustments, it’s not a promising sign for its efficacy nor resilience.

SQUAD MANAGEMENT

After a lot of talk about a flexible attacking corps, Chris Armas rolled out the same starting XI as week one against Cincinnati. Goalkeeper David Jensen had a star turn with an acrobatic save, which you’d think would solidify his place in the lineup if Ryan Meara ever gets fit. Kyle Duncan also rewarded his manager’s trust, with an eye-catching clearance and block on the goal line in the first half.

Marc Rzatkowski’s substitute appearance had the effect of making a mockery out of last week’s cautious optimism. Instead of coming on in a specialized pressing role, he was a straight swap for Kaku and jogged out an ineffective 23 minutes. This makes two substitutions in two weeks for the team’s marquee playmaker. If his minutes are being strategically limited with an eye towards knock-out tournaments, I think its worth considering potential trade-offs of limiting potential rhythm of getting full minutes, especially in late-game push situations. But at this point, this will be a good problem to have should we ever actually cross it.

New York Red Bulls v Real Salt Lake Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

On the other hand, Armas didn’t give himself many substitute options other than Rzatkowski anyway. Omir Fernandez and Alex Muyl were sent to RBNY II to get minutes as starters. As a result the bench in Sandy was notably uneven and one-dimensional, with two young center forwards in Barlow and Jorgensen, a traditional vertical winger in Sims, and the misused utilityman Rzatkowski.

Aaron Long remains out with hamstring tightness, and by the time he returns he may find himself with a new partner. A week ago I would have erred on the side of precaution and said to reunite the 2018 pairing upon Long’s return. But after an even worse performance than last week, Amro Tarek is making a case to replace Tim Parker altogether. Only an unnecessary handball from Douglas Martinez kept Parker from getting caught flat-footed on a cross and beaten in the air for a Salt Lake goal twice on the day. Solidarity to any Red Bulls fans who suffered flashbacks to that fateful November 2018 playoff night in Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Tone

Standard bearer of the club” is an awkward fit for a week-to-week analysis, so instead we can consider this section a space for commentary on the tone and ambition emanating out of the club, and which direction it seems to be moving in the long term.

Tim Parker’s struggles offer an early test for the man-management of this 2020 squad. Parker seems to check a lot of boxes with the current management, signalled first and foremost by the decision to give him a substantial raise while half of the 2018 back line were moved on. He shares a similar background as Chris Armas, cutting his teeth in the Long Island soccer scene and a premier local NCAA program. Perhaps as a function of this, he seems to share a similar vocabulary and personality with the manager. So it wasn’t a surprise when the club went out of its way to spotlight Parker this offseason, even sparking speculation that he could be named captain before settling on fellow local product Sean Davis.

In this light it’s notable that Parker’s errors have been consistent, and date all the way back to Chris Armas’s day of reckoning against Atlanta in the 2018 playoffs. Is anyone providing Parker notes, corrections, or coaching? Last year OaM reported Parker was staying late to practice his touch and distribution with CJ Brown and Chris Armas themselves, raising eyebrows that a 26-year old professional two years deep into the team’s tactical format was spending time drilling on basic technical skills. Parker’s touch is unlikely to massively change at this point in his career, but his awareness of how to man-mark with his teammates might.

What is it that Chris Armas and Denis Hamlett like about Tim Parker? For Jesse Marsch we saw it was his physicality that could be slotted into a search-and-destroy defensive scheme that assumed the team would never have to start possession from the back line. Parker’s distribution and touch is evidently subpar for Armas’s preferred vision of deep build-up play, and his marking has remained flawed for over a year. Is it just the shared vocabulary of an NCAA athlete and local jock?

Next week may prove too soon to judge, but how Chris Armas handles a struggling Parker could tell us a lot about how he evaluates talent and the tone of his locker room. If, as I suggested in my preseason piece, Chris Armas is oriented towards building a collegiate sporting environment first and foremost, Parker’s performance as a center back may matter less than his performance as big man on campus.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake Melissa Majchrzak-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, a brief note on the dreaded discourse: there seems to be consternation towards criticism at the team’s performance when, after all, they dug out a point on the road. To lay my cards on the table, it only makes sense to be incredulous about this if you either didn’t watch last season or didn’t view it as a disappointment. Red Bull New York is a living, breathing soccer club that is building on its recent work; it’s not a video game where every match week or season is a brand new slate, where this time Chris Armas is going to get to use the good controller.

On my timeline, criticism is coming from connecting this week’s struggles into a pattern of longer problems over the past year. This draw is not the same as previous seasons’ draws because the contexts are different. For this same reason it’s also silly to chalk up struggles to a stale mythos set in Giants Stadium. American soccer writing in general suffers from a blurred line between straight “reporting” and analysis. The world is still small enough and the pay low enough that we’re all here because we’re fans; I think we would all benefit from dispensing with the sepia-toned pretense of mid-century beat reporting altogether and offer explicit analyses of how we are evaluating the club. That’s how I plan to use this column, and I hope it can break the spell out there that “nuance” redounds to saying nothing at all.