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With the first team underwhelming, is a spark hiding in the reserves, waiting for a chance?

The United Soccer League Pro is either an amateurish competition compared to Major League Soccer or the greater Dayton, Ohio area suffers from a severe lack of soccer talent. A week after the New York Red Bull reserve side defeated the Dayton Dutch Lions 3-0 at Red Bull Arena, the underused players recorded a three-goal-deficit loss themselves, this time losing 4-1 away in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. 

When the two professional soccer leagues in North America chose to form an affiliation, MLS commissioner Don Garber probably did so with the belief that two extra games for reserve teams against lower division, yet fully professional, teams, would provide more competition than an essentially glorified work-out versus other reserve players.

One can dispute that notion after seldom played Red Bulls outclassed a Dayton side playing their season opener and then were outclassed themselves against a Montreal team that included a few more experienced MLS campaigners. Circumstantial factors played into both results as New York were forced to play five unsigned academy youngsters versus veterans like Patrice Bernier and Jeb Brovsky of Montreal.

However, trends are observable in these two games (one watched online and one watched live in person). Some players have demonstrated enough potential and form to possibly earn first team minutes from head coach Mike Petke. Though hopefully, reserve team coach John Wolyniec can relay the message, especially in this mini-injury-crisis.

Lema tracking Blake Smith

Lema tracking Blake Smith – Jon Cook

Here’s a look at who’s ready to play and who needs more time before receiving minutes (only the contracted individuals that played in these two games are eligible for evaluation):

THOSE THAT DESERVE A CHANCE:

  • Connor Lade

Have we found the New York equivalent to Phillip Lahm’s and Andrea Pirlo’s respective roles in the Bayern Munich and Juventus systems? In the past few reserve games, 2012 breakout star, Connor Lade, has performed admirably in a deep-lying, defensive midfield role. He is intercepting forward balls to strikers with adept positioning, dropping in between the center backs to relay possession and switching the field of play with driven long balls. Against Dayton, he hardly played a wrong pass and assisted on a flicked header for the opening goal. In Montreal, he held his own against the powerful, physically dominating midfield of Callum Mallace and Patrice Bernier.

While Lade has excelled in his new role, it is still one that is largely novel to him. Finding time and space against lesser players is one task, but performing to the same level against the first teams of MLS is a totally different challenge.  Lade needs to recycle the ball quicker and take fewer touches than he has been doing. These are minor issues though as he looks the most ready for league play. Unfortunately, the midfield is stacked and opportunities seem limited. His experience from his rookie season will ensure he finds chances at some point.

  • Ryan Meara

The New York native’s injury struggles are well-documented. Those problems seem a distant memory. His confidence coming off-the-line for crosses and to close angles have been almost flawless. Meara recorded a shutout versus Dayton in front of an inexperienced back-line but was helpless to prevent the rout in Canada. The one issue for Meara is Luis Robles. The current “number one” for the Red Bulls is, thus far, the team’s most valuable player and one of the best goalkeepers in MLS. The rumored second Red Bull team in the USL Pro next year could not come sooner for a player as talented as Meara.

Meara save - Jon Cook

Meara save – Jon Cook

  • Michael Bustamante

Besides Lade, the only player on these two lists that recorded an assist in league play is Bustamante. The 2013 Supplemental Draft pick has adapted well to the professional game and simplified his play in central midfield drastically from his play-making days in college. Against Dayton and Montreal, Bustamante attempted many one-time outlet passes to link possession from the wings while also picking precise moments to dribble forward into pockets of space. He had two goals in these two games, one-off a corner kick and one from a late consolation penalty.

Part of a collectively overwhelmed unit versus the experienced Montreal midfielders, Bustamante faded with no fault to his effort and fight. He never stopped trying combinations and found himself covering space in many positions on the left and right-wing. Look for the sophomore pro to earn minutes in cup competitions and fill in sporadically anywhere in midfield for league play.

  • Ruben Bover

The young Spaniard, who conveniently shares an agent and cleat brand with Thierry Henry, only played approximately 10 minutes in the Montreal game. Recovering from a small injury, Bover looked as impressive as he did this past preseason. One run where he evaded three or four challenges to feed trialist, Sammy Adjei Jr., inside the box, contained equal grace and power. It was a sight that fans pay to see (too bad no footage will be released of the moment).

Bover already had a 10 minute cameo in the season opener at Vancouver, so maybe Petke is ready to entrust him with a more substantial squad role for the remainder of the season.

THOSE THAT NEED MORE TIME: 

  • Chris Duvall

At one point in the Montreal game, coach Wolyniec, clearly exasperated from seeing his young defender make a mistake, calmly instructed Duvall to open the field instead of forcing the play down the line.  The rookie fullback appeared comfortable going forward and combining with his midfield partner Eric Stevenson on the right side. However, his athleticism does not mask his tactical rawness in control of the ball.

On the defensive side, Duvall performs admirably in one versus one confrontations and easily cuts off diagonal passes with giant leaps in the air. Clearly, the Red Bull scouts identified the Wake Forest alum as a prospect with his relatively surprising early drafting. Current first and second choice right backs, Richard Eckersley and Kosuke Kimura, have been inconsistent so far in 2014. Can Duvall earn playing time? The coaching staff envisioning a future for a rookie is a positive sign, but 2014 playing time is most likely too early a progression for him.

Barren Olympic Stadium - Jon Cook

Barren Olympic Stadium – Jon Cook

  • Matt Miazga

For better or worse, Miazga must be ready to play sooner rather than later. An injury to Armando late in the tie versus Montreal led the young center back to make a short cameo. His approximate 60 minutes in the reserve game the following day saw three goals conceded during his time on the pitch. However, two of those three goals were not due to his endeavors. Impact right-winger Blake Smith and forward Gonzalez consistently terrorized Tetro and Politz on the left side of the Red Bull defense. The two academy players were clearly outmatched and targeted on the two goal plays, which unfortunately meant Miazga had a tougher day.

Having said that, he generally fared well in physical battles and brought a strong aerial presence to the side, a trait that was illustrated with his towering headed goal versus Dayton. An issue of the 18-year-old homegrown player is his passing and decision-making out of the back. He forced many passes forward that led to turnovers and took many risks near his 18 yard box, choosing to play out of trouble rather than hoof the ball clear. Perhaps he is under instruction to practice composure, but mistakes in concentration will be capitalized on by better forwards, if he must play league games in the coming weeks.

  • Eric Stevenson

The Akron alum is a prototypical inverted left-winger that is, unsurprisingly, playing on the right for the Red Bulls, slowly learning the two-way style required for Petke’s outside midfielders. Stevenson brings a veteran savvy at a relatively young age of 23. Case in point is how exceptional his first touch was in these two games. He expertly controlled aerial balls and constantly turned defenders on his back.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Stevenson has no expectations. Pressure is firmly on his shoulders to show the coaches in training and reserve games different attributes than the other two-way wingers. His one weakness is complicating the game during one versus one duels. He lacks significant speed to run away from his defender. A smart run and strong finish against Dayton is a first message to the watching Red Bull brass.

  • Oyongo

Little information is known about Oyongo as his offseason signing was largely unheralded. In his 90 minute appearance versus Dayton, he looked like a Roy Miller replica. The Dutch Lions allowed him space to run into and overlap on multiple occasions. Clean and tidy in possession, the Cameroonian’s footballer is possibly capable of filling in during Miller’s World Cup hiatus if Bobby Convey is unavailable as well. How he fares in one versus one defending against MLS attackers is a question mark.

  • Marius Obekop

After being tried as a central attacking midfielder in select preseason games, Oyongo’s Cameroonian’s compatriot played as a traditional striker versus Dayton. Obekop was lively and threatening but his touch failed him too often. A splitting through ball between the left back and center back found Stevenson for the opening goal.

His talent is visible (as the assist illustrates), however, he is far too raw. A few more late cameos in games where the Red Bulls are trailing and need a spark, is most likely Obekop’s role for the remaining season like it was in the last one.

 

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