I’m going to open with a confession: I didn’t watch the New York Red Bulls II game on Saturday night.
Judging from the team’s attendance figures as well as the large amount of quality soccer on television last night, you probably didn’t either. I know, I know, you’re still a die hard fan - I am too. It’s fine - you’re not really supposed to watch these games religiously, it’s the reserve team.
We’re all here because they lost 7-0 at Hartford Athletic, but it’s just one game and in the grand scheme of things not anything worth getting upset about - reserve team games are designed to be drops in the bucket of a larger learning process and sometimes these games played with makeshift rosters of young players spiral out of control. But this game was a little different in ways that call into question what exactly is being accomplished at Red Bulls II and in the USL professional leagues in general.
Eight of the eleven doomed starters for Red Bulls II against Hartford on Saturday are on MLS contracts. Current designated player Dru Yearwood and (as it turns out) former designated player Andrés Reyes headlined the first team interlopers, with attackers Tom Barlow, Omir Fernandez, Cameron Harper and Wikelman Carmona joining defenders Jason Pendant and Mandela Egbo as senior cameos.
The game started relatively evenly with Carmona hitting the post twice, first with a free kick and second with an outside the box blast with the game still held at 1-0. However a two-goal dagger from Hartford in the closing moments of the first half shoved the floodgates open against a Red Bulls II defense filled with top level personnel suffering from a clear deficit of cohesion and motivation. The true exclamation point came when Long Island native Connor McGlynn put Hartford up 5-0 with a long range strike from inside his own half after spotting goalkeeper AJ Marcucci off his line. The night closed on an equally emphatic note as the seventh Hartford score came via a headed own goal from Andrés Reyes.
If you were one of these fringe first team players hoping to use this game to impress Gerhard Struber and the first team staff to earn minutes in the big show, participating in a result like this is...less than ideal. Indeed the struggle for the reserve team (which has won just one of eight games so far this season and has conceded a league-high 19 goals) to adjust competitively to a further downsizing of age brackets is a legitimate cause for concern surrounding a traditionally proud program. But these are also natural progressions to an entity designed to function as a reserve team - a low-stakes outfit used to give reps to a frequently-changing set of players who for whatever reason are not prepared to be trusted with first team minutes.
The question is less where Red Bulls II and the first team’s fringe players need to improve, but rather whether they or any of the MLS reserve teams are in the correct competition anymore. Six years on from MLS and USL’s reserve team partnership, it’s increasingly unclear what teams with contrasting objectives like Red Bulls II and Hartford Athletic are even getting out of this. In this respect, Saturday night’s result was a compelling advertisement for the MLS reserve league reportedly being planned.
For Red Bulls first team players seeking mere fitness rhythm rather than intensive tactical refinement, they probably would be best-served playing against other half-motivated seniors. Even more, it’s unfair to the integrity of the table of what is now a fully-developed national pro league like the USL Championship to have a planned and organized club like Hartford play a group of higher-paid, higher-pedigreed players who paradoxically are treating the game like a preseason scrimmage.
In 2014 when the current reserve team arrangement was reached between the two leagues, a recently-overhauled USL was desperate for clubs to fill the map and schedule while a rapidly-growing MLS was equally in need of ancillary matches for its increasingly-sophisticated rosters. But, partially thanks to the accomplishments of this arrangement, much has changed since then. USL now has a national footprint of independent clubs, MLS managers are increasingly willing to trust academy products in league matches, and the focus of the reserve teams are increasingly moving (like the 2021 version of Red Bulls II) towards blooding of the youngest academy players and rehabilitation of fringe first teamers. The overlap between the reserve teams and independent clubs in focusing on early-20s prospects is eroding, and maybe the planned reserve league isn’t the worst plan to address this dynamic.
There’s nothing wrong with digging in and watching reserve team games. Red Bulls II offers an intriguing window into potential future first team players and an accessible good time at an attractive ground in Montclair. But it’s increasingly clear in many areas that treating their games from the inside and out like official league matches is a problematic exercise.