New York Red Bulls II got the 2017 USL season underway with an entertaining 3-3 draw in Pittsburgh. The Riverhounds chased the game throughout, three times falling behind and three times leveling the score.
NYRB II will be pleased with the attacking power shown in the match, and less pleased with at times disjointed and uncertain back line.
Three thoughts inspired by the II team's opening game of USL 2017:
1. Where did everybody go?
NYRB II's season-opening match-day squad was 14 players. Only 14 players.
Short-handed squads are nothing new for the II team: head coach John Wolyniec has been making do with whomever he can scrape together for a match for two seasons and there is no reason to believe 2017 will be greatly different. But 14 players including back-up 'keeper Evan Louro seemed like a new low for NYRB II - the team couldn't even field a full complement of outfield substitutes.
The II team announced a 24-man roster for 2017 on March 23, but on March 25, it only had 14 available. Several players listed on the original roster were on first-team duty: Connor Lade, Justin Bilyeu, Dan Metzger, and Brandon Allen were all in RBNY's squad to face Real Salt Lake the same day. But Andrew Lombard, Jordan Scarlett, Zeiko Lewis, Stefano Bonomo, and Zach Ryan were unaccounted for (and third 'keeper Sam Ilin was not required - no team needs two 'keepers on bench).
As noted, the II team is often shorthanded and it won USL last year with similar constraints. But the league probably isn't thrilled that its defending champion makes a habit of fielding incomplete match-day squads. And it's certainly not a great look for USL that its title-holder couldn't get a full 18 together for Day One of the new season.
NYRB II's lineups will change regularly throughout the season, and we can expect to see more than just the 24 players named on the initial rosters to appear for side over the course of the year. But the opening day lineup was a reminder there will also be occasions when RBNY simply cannot disguise the fact that the reserve team and the league it plays in are not and never will be the club's priority.
2. Only three subs this year
USL has introduced rule changes this season, the most significant of which is the reduction of the number of substitutes allowed in a game. The league used to allow each team five subs per match; this year, teams will have to make do with the traditional three-substitutions-per-game formula in use in most competitions around the world.
That's a moot point for NYRB II if it persists with sending 14 players to a game, but let's assume the small squad used against Pittsburgh was the exception, not the rule for the II team this season.
The reduced number of subs might remove one advantage NYRB II seemed to have over its opponents in seasons past. The combination of a rigid tactical identity and a mandate to facilitate player development often meant John Wolyniec could and would deploy all five subs in a match. And since the II team's style - like that of RBNY - is relentlessly active and up-tempo, the ability to refresh half the team seemed to help the Red Bulls out in USL. As the game progressed, Wolyniec could throw fresh legs on to the field at regular intervals to sustain the intensity of his team's pressing and harrying of the opposition.
Often, it seemed NYRB II had an advantage in the last 20 minutes of games, in part due to generally superior fitness levels against many USL rivals, and in part because of the generous allocation of substitutes allowed by USL. It will be interesting to see whether the II team's apparent late-game advantage diminishes now there are fewer fresh legs allowed on the field.
3. The French Connection is in form
Vincent Bezecourt and Florian Valot are NYRB II's French Connection, and they picked up in 2017 where they left off in 2016. Last year, Bezecourt finished with eight goals and six assists in all competitions for the II team; Valot had three goals and eight assists. This year, they have three goals between them already.
Valot is 24 years old and Bezecourt will turn 24 in June. This is a significant season for both players, who might well be in their last year with NYRB II (it seems as though the team has an unofficial age restriction: it prefers to work with a U-25 roster) and can each be hopeful of playing at a higher level next year - not necessarily for RBNY.
Both are attacking midfielders, so goals and assists weigh heavily in evaluating their effectiveness. They're off to a good start in 2017.