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The New York Red Bulls are doing the USL thing right

Written by Will Parchman


Over the weekend, USL and Opta debuted their new partnership for the USL title game. It was good timing for Red Bulls II, considering they used the occasion to pummel SKC’s affiliate Swope Park Rangers 5-1.

Opta’s deal with the USL will peel back a section of American soccer that’s yet to be plumbed by outside observers. We’ve never had more in-depth analytics before beyond the standard numbers, so the league is about to become more known than ever. This, as ever, is a net positive all the way around. More knowing is good.

Its roll-out happened to coincide with Red Bulls II’s title, and if the unveiling revealed anything it’s that the Red Bulls are more stacked than most of the country probably even realizes. Yes, FC Dallas is widely considered the de facto king of the academy pipeline, but the Red Bulls probably had more talented players closer to MLS minutes than FC Dallas does. To wit, the latter does not yet have a USL club. Take that as you will.

The Red Bulls’ goals in the finale came from three sources: Derrick Etienne, Brandon Allen (who had three) and Vincent Bezecourt. The latter is a late addition after arriving from France to play for St. Francis, but the other two are Red Bulls academy products. Etienne is one of the most skilled wide players in the league, while Allen left Georgetown last fall as the program’s all-time leading scorer.

And yet none of them might’ve been the best players on the field. Hello Tyler Adams.

The Red Bulls have done the USL right, opting to play a style generally applicable to the first team. I recently visited Bayer Leverkusen to take in their holistic club setup, and they make a distinction between the style the academy plays and that of the first team. First team coaches change so often that to force the academy players to operate under its yoke would be to force them to change styles every two to three years, on average. It isn’t sustainable.

But they split that philosophy once players matriculate to the U19 team, which Bayer uses as its second team in the national U19 league. Here’s Bayer academy manager Slawomir Czarniecki on why that is.

“The development of a younger player never belongs to the philosophy of the first team. In the last eight or nine years we had seven senior coaches, so seven philosophies. In short words, until U15 you have the basis of education; basics for every player. Then for U17 and U19 the style of play belongs more to the first team. A lot of them train together with the first team and it’s a lot easier to integrate them when they play the same style. But the basis for the players never belongs to the first team – we have our own academy philosophy.”

This is more or less the tack the Red Bulls (and each of the top MLS-connected USL sides) have taken. And it’s still rare. USL teams still have more autonomy than more interconnected second teams abroad, though it seems as though this is changing in a few key corners of the league. The Red Bulls’ USL title proves it’s a quality plan of action.

Against Swope Park Rangers, Red Bulls II attempted 439 passes at a rate of 66 percent. The raw number would’ve been better than the MLS season average of 11 first teams, including SPR’s senior side Sporting KC. The success rate was low – no MLS team was even close to that number – but within that construct the Red Bulls had some encouraging individual performances.

None better than Tyler Adams.

Adams is just 17, a defensive midfielder with USYNT experience both in the midfield and along the back line. He’s one of the few defensive midfielders in his age cohort who looks like a deadlock pro – it’s a surprisingly thin field – and he had a tremendous final. He only got about 1,200 minutes this season, or about 1,000 off the total possible, but when he played he looked so much more comfortable than his age.

These are good numbers (thanks Opta).

Passes 55
Passing accuracy 78.2
Passing accuracy in opponents’ half (%) 70
Long passes 10
Short passes 45
Duels won 8
Duels lost 4
Aerial duels won 3
Aerial duels lost 1

Adams was comfortable stepping into the run of play to help stoke it while simultaneously breaking up attack after attack. Adams will be 18 at the start of the 2017 season, and he certainly won’t beat out Dax McCarty. But it’s reasonable to assume he’ll get more than the 45 minutes he got in 2016. And even if he doesn’t, he’s in a warm place with the Red Bulls’ USL team.

This is how you use a second team. This is the blueprint. Be aspirational, tether yourself as closely to the first team as humanly possible in terms of general playing style, play your kids and give special dispensation to young players.

Alex Muyl made quite the impression after signing a HG deal late last year. The Red Bulls have plenty more where he came from.

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