Reliant on academy grads, Red Bulls have run out of time for learning curves
It's been a pretty dreadful run for the New York Red Bulls. In little more than a week and a half, the team has lost three games, conceded eight goals and scored just once -- and that goal was a stoppage-time consolation in a 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy on Sunday evening.
Bad sequences happen, but that last game has set alarm bells ringing in New York.
Prior to that, a generous interpretation of the losses against Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia might note that Jesse Marsch had to rotate his team on the road for three games in a week, and that the Union game in particular could have gone either way until it broke out into a surprise rout late on.
The expectation was that on Sunday, hosting a basement-dwelling Galaxy team whose version of a "transitional" season has looked more like a "traumatic" one in the opening months of the season, New York would get back to what it does best: build off its home form.
But instead of stopping the rot, the Red Bulls compounded it. Suddenly the two previous losses look less like aberrations and more like elements of a trend, one in which the soft-centered Red Bulls leak goals, and their ponderous wing play rarely threaten to score them.
It did not help that discarded captain Dax McCarty's new team, the Chicago Fire, won an emphatic victory over the defending MLS Cup holders on Saturday night. There's been a degree of patience for the process of replacing McCarty with some combination of Sean Davis and Tyler Adams, but patience with the former's erratic progress ran thin after another poor performance on Sunday.
Marsch was forced to deflect questions about Davis during the post-game news conference by talking about the poor performance of the team as a whole, but it did little to obscure the fact that on the second LA goal in particular, Romain Alessandrini had the type of alarming freedom in the center of the field that would be unthinkable in McCarty's time in New York.
But for right now, Davis is the only option to accompany Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan in midfield, with the promising Adams departed to the U.S.'s U20 World Cup squad. And with an in-form Toronto team due to visit Red Bull Arena on Friday night, things won't get any easier for the young midfielder, even if Sebastian Giovinco's injury prevents the most lopsided match-up in prospect.
The Red Bulls' midfield has been the heartbeat of their success in the past few seasons, but for now there are too many other stretched elements of the team's overall play for the stress of carrying a transitional unit there to be tenable. Just the act of replacing McCarty is disruptive enough; Kljestan, for example, looks burdened by worrying about what's behind him and around him, to the point where the threat he posed last year with his advanced movement and passes behind opposing defenses has been too erratic to be a potent factor this year.
Without that, the Red Bulls have been overly dependent on wing play that's been too slow to be anything like a threat. LA Galaxy were made to look like the model of defensive competence for much of Sunday's game as their back line set itself up comfortably to deal with hopeful late balls into the box. Meanwhile any overlapping ambitions from the New York full-backs were checked by the experience of Alessandrini having way too much time to spray balls wide into space behind them, usually after all too frequent breakdowns from a snake-bitten New York.
And in facing attacks, the Red Bulls were clearly suffering without the authoritative presence of Aurelien Collin, who anchored the team's run in the second half of last season. In his absence, another young player, Aaron Long, has gone from rave reviews to looking shaky during this losing sequence, and the thought of him and Damien Perrinelle facing Jozy Altidore on Friday is not one that inspires confidence.
So perhaps it's no wonder that during Sunday's post-mortem Marsch was quick to downplay the idea of the Toronto game as a "must-win", but he must be aware that this has suddenly become a key game.
It's one thing to bed in a raft of young players during a season in which home buoyancy keeps confidence and playoff prospects alive. It's another to expose young players not yet fully fit for purpose to a dispiriting sequence in which their notional mentors on the team are too busy fighting continuous fires on all fronts to do their own jobs most effectively.
Right now, the Red Bulls have drifted to a point where the time for learning curves has gone. There's nowhere for the young players to hide right now; they are a critical mass in this team now and they, as much as the senior pros around them, have to be accountable.
Friday might not be a must-win game, but it's definitely a mustn't-lose one.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.