The New York Red Bulls’ return to competitive play went incredibly well last Saturday, 7/11.

The team, 126 days removed from its last regular-season game, opened its’ MLS is Back tournament campaign in Orlando, FL with a 1-0 win over rival Atlanta United.

Florian Valot scored the lone goal in the 4th minute, continuing the Frenchman’s excellent offensive form in 2020 following consecutive seasons marred by ACL injuries.

After an extended break due to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, the team’s first two games from earlier this year may as well be from last season. The Atlanta win, along with the next two games, will count for the MLS regular season standings alongside the early-season matches. All of this is combined with the looming prize of a possible Champions League spot, major trophy, and prize money going to the tournament’s champion.

It won’t be easy for RBNY, nor any team in the Orlando bubble, to keep the momentum going and coaching staffs are gripping with that realization as the first games are played.

Current Red Bulls II coach and first-team alumni John Wolyniec explained that the quick turnaround caused by quarantine and safety guidelines is forcing staff like him to think outside the box.

“When you’re off for this long you want to actually play real games before you start,” Coach Wolyniec said in a Zoom interview with New York Sports Nation. “You don’t want your first game to be your actual first game. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible for us right now.”

Some changes he’s had to employ with the USL Championship side as it prepares to restart.

The changes included using staff members to fill up practice rosters while academy players were unavailable, just to increase scrimmage sizes, and trying to put players in as realistic game situations as early as possible.

“Usually what you do is you slowly increase the minutes when you’re playing,” he explained. “So when you first start you’re not doing a lot of 11 v 11, the guys will come in from individual training and they’re not used to the change of direction or the decision making.”

For the first team, the slow climb back to regular training, plus delays arriving in Orlando itself, could have all added up. A hot start in the sunshine state might be the best thing RBNY can do right now if history is any indication of future results. As an original member of Major League Soccer, the Red Bulls have a sizable chunk of its history stemming from the state. Of the four teams to ever call the state home, New York has played three of them for at least four seasons (the only exception being the recently launched Inter Miami CF which has yet to even play a “home” game prior to the suspension of play).

To put it bluntly, New York has struggled against all of them when playing on the road.

The most recent of these tests began in 2015 with the introduction of former USL Pro side Orlando City SC into MLS the team. In the Red Bulls’ first competitive match in the state in over a decade, New York defeated Orlando in what has since been the latter’s best year in the league. A first-half goal by Sacha Kljestan and a stoppage-time strike by Mike Grella in the latter’s first RBNY season helped put away a team that finished 7th in the Eastern Conference, five points out of playoff contention. Orlando has never been that close to the postseason since. The Florida side did crush RBNY in the return leg, 5-2, in Harrison later in the year as revenge.

But as that team’s results worsened, so did the Red Bulls’ while playing as a visitor.

Between 2016 and 2018 the team drew once and lost twice to Orlando. The biggest of these losses came in the 18′ campaign when New York fell, 4-3, in a reunion type game. After being traded in January, new Bulls Carlos Rivas and Tommy Redding faced off opposite a purple donned Kljestan as all three played their first match against their former teams.

Photo: Major League Soccer

Orlando was able to counter nearly everything New York sent at it. Will Johnson tapped the ball into a nearly open net, assisted off course by Kljestan in his lone note from the game, only eight minutes after Valot put the visitors ahead early. Derrick Etienne Jr’s breakaway goal in the 24th minute was followed up two minutes later when Lions legend Dominic Dwyer headed in a corner kick while also nearly tackling Luis Robles.

The roles reversed in the second half when Dwyer put the team ahead for the first time in the 48th minute and by that point, the roles were known. Anything New York could do, Orlando could counter. Despite Aaron Long tying the game with just under 10 minutes to go, the Lions once again showed they could respond as Josué Colman scored the game-winner in the 86th minute from distance.

It was the perfect exclamation point goal. The type that tells fans this was never in doubt. The type that screams New York didn’t even deserve a point from this game.

What’s interesting to note is that both of New York’s losses in this time came as the games were played early in the season. The 2017 campaign saw the Florida match fall in late March as the team’s 6th game, and it wrapped up with the team falling to a 2-1-3 record overall. In 2018, the March 31st game was the team’s fourth, and the Bulls, which eventually went on to win the Supporters’ Shield that season, were sitting at 2-0-2. Two games later, the team found itself at 3-0-3. On the opposite side, Orlando would finish the 2018 season at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, 8-4-22 (28 pts).

Wolyniec, who played games against Florida teams in the early days of MLS for both the MetroStars and Chicago Fire, said this is one of the worst times to play games in the state alongside season’s end.

When playing home matches in climates where March or September games can be brisk, traveling South can cause training/condition to shift dramatically.

“I think the biggest challenge is when you go from those March games, those October games, when you’re at home in the Northeast and it’s 50 (or) 60 degrees, maybe raining, and then going down to Florida,” he explained. “I know one of the toughest games I had was the Houston playoff game in 2008. It was cold back home and then to go into a hot environment with humidity was very difficult.”

For context, the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Semifinals versus Houston Dynamo was played in Giants Stadium on November 1st. The two teams tied 1-1 with the game being played in 40 to 50-degree weather. The second leg a week later in Houston reached 70 degrees at game time.

New York did advance with a win in the second leg, 3-0, with Wolyniec scoring the third goal.

“The humidity is a difficult thing. I think, especially as a young pro, it was especially difficult because you were just trying to get up to the pace of the game,” he continued. “Then add on heat and humidity and the difficulty breathing and all the extra hydration you have to do… that’s when it becomes really tough. Some of it is mental, but some of it is physical too.”

Now to be fair, New York did win against City last season and brought the “Red Bulls’” overall Florida record to 2-1-2. That’s not horrible. There were plenty of points left on the table but the side did also win two times in that span.

Where questions start to arise more however come from the fact that the two wins against Orlando City represent 25% of every league win the team has ever had in Florida. Out of a possible 24 games the team has only won 8 (and by today’s standards two of those should be ties thanks to penalty kick shootouts).

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Beginning with the inaugural 1996 season, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars lost both regular-season games against the Tampa Bay Mutiny by a combined score of 7-2, losing each by at least two goals. In an inaugural season, things need to be taken with a grain of salt especially considering Tampa went on to finish the regular season atop the Eastern Conference. New York/New Jersey even earned its first-ever league points against Tampa at Giants Stadium on May 5th via a penalty kick shootout following a stunning regulation time comeback.

But it didn’t stop there as the MetroStars failed to achieve a winning record in the state for its next two seasons. In 97’ the team once again lost both games in Tampa and the Miami Fusion’s introduction in 98’ only allowed for a 2-0-2 record. On a positive note, New York did start the Florida series with two wins including its first-ever road win over the Mutiny, 1-0, on May 3. But late-season losses (mid-August and September) helped push the team to a dreadful 5-0-12 away record. Plus, those correlate with the home field advantage coach Wolyniec mentioned earlier.

Overall, New York only had one winning season against Florida teams on the road (99’ with a 3-0-1 record including 2 PK wins). In total it went 6-0-13 including those two Penalty Kick wins and a after extra time (AET) loss, which today would all be counted as ties.

Speaking of his experience against those teams, the coach also mentioned that his early career as a rookie helped introduce him to how Florida teams built their staff.

Mixing young talent who could play long spans in humid environments while also having older, experienced players who could guide and direct game plans properly.

“From what I remember those Tampa teams revolved around (Carlos) Valderrama and what he could do at midfield,” he said. “They always found a way to put a couple good attackers, strong pace-y guys in front of him, which made it very difficult. I think they also gained an advantage by playing in that humid, hot type environment. Early in the season, late in the season, they did have that advantage at home.

“As far as Miami goes they were pretty smart in the way they put their team together. I remember Preki being on that team and Jay Heaps was drafted there… They had a good mix of a couple of veterans that were very good and then they put some young players, which was smart – if you’re gonna play in heat you need those young guys that can have a little bit of extra energy, that can cover the ground and do that work.”

This “home field advantage” as he put it helped Tampa dominate the early MLS Eastern Division / Conference and helped Miami become a force in both 2000 (U.S. Open Cup Runner-up) and 2001 (Supporters’ Shield winner).

Fast forward to pandemic tournament 2020 where the team is off to a good start. Does the previous losing record (8-1-15) not matter at all or is this just an outlier win?

Well think back to what coach Wolyniec was saying before in regards to training and the advantages Florida teams have in the early/late season. For MLS teams, training didn’t resume until early June – the dead middle of summer when most of the continental United States is experiencing high heat. Every team, including the Red Bulls, have been training in that kind of weather and has also gotten the chance to train in Florida itself.

The most danger New York had of not being acclimated was the Atlanta game since it was first. They won that, and have at least two more games within the Orlando bubble where the climate stays the same.

Coach Wolyniec echoed this point later in the interview as well when discussing how he coaches Red Bulls II.

The USL Championship only sees teams playing with their own Conference during the season, but Montclair in early fall can be a different beast than a lot of the Southeast.

“You’re going to want to adjust, you want to prepare the players for the environment that they’re going to be in. Obviously, during a season it’s difficult because even if you’re playing Saturday to Saturday, (the question is) when do you start to prepare? Do you start before the previous Saturday game when that may affect that game… The biggest thing for me is just to not be afraid to put the guys into the heat and humidity. Some coaches will train earlier to avoid (that). You want to expose them to it before they get down there so it’s not a drastic change to them.”

There’s a lot of things to consider when looking at season results and historical data. How good were past Metrostars teams overall, especially on the road? Was Atlanta missing a key player or two in its first match post restart? (yes they were) Can a result really be attributed to the weather and setting of a game?

All of these are up for interpretation, but if patterns do emerge it’s always interesting and worth it to examine them.

The Red Bulls’ next game in the MLS is Back Tournament against the Columbus Crew on July 16.
The team will close out group play on July 22 against FC Cincinnati, which lost its tournament opener to the Crew over the weekend, 4-0.

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