On January 21, 2015, following years of speculation, tentative plans, cancelled plans and fan consternation, the New York Red Bulls announced that the club had acquired the rights to a USL franchise that would begin play in the Spring of 2015.
For years, the New York Red Bulls youth academy has been rated among the best in the United States. However, due to a lack of cohesion between the academy and the professional first team, the Red Bulls have rarely seen the fruits of the academy’s labor.
Fans have long clamored for a more succinct and dedicated plan for the entire organization. If the Red Bulls had as great of a youth academy as they've been told, why wasn't there a mechanism in place to cultivate that talent into the MLS side?
Upon taking over as New York Red Bulls sporting director, one of Ali Curtis’ first goals was to create an environment where the academy and the first team would be connected in ways previously unseen in the organization's history.
Never before has the organization had its academy director attend the MLS Combine nor the first team’s preseason training.
Curtis invited Red Bulls Academy director Bob Montgomery down to Florida to attend the MLS side's preseason training camp. Partnering with first team head coach Jesse Marsch, Curtis and Montgomery outlined plans to implement Marsch's playing style throughout the entire organization from the first team to NYRB II head coach John Wolyniec and all the way down to the U-13's.
Despite holding the position of youth director since 2007, this was the first time Montgomery was brought into the first team fold, establishing legitimate links between the youth academy and the MLS team.
With greater organizational cohesion, the creation of the Red Bulls' third division side set out to provide its young, and fringe, first team players a professional and consistently competitive environment.
As they've just passed the halfway point of the MLS regular season, RBNY have already seen the fruits of NYRB II’s labor, particularly in the emergence of Anatole Abang, Sean Davis, Manolo Sanchez and most recently, Anthony Wallace. The USL squad has also provided fan-favorite Connor Lade valuable minutes that has aided the defender’s re-emergence into valuable first team contributor.
Anatole Abang: NYRB II's Shining Light
If there is a singular success story to highlight from the NYRB II program it’s been the emergence of forward Anatole Abang.
The 19-year-old Cameroonian was signed from Rainbow FC just prior to MLS First Kick after spending the entire preseason training camp with the Red Bulls.
Despite being an unknown quantity, Abang was a welcome signing as New York went into the season with only one other forward on the first team roster; that being 2014 MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips (career striker Mike Grella had been and continues to be deployed on the left and right wings by Marsch).
The lack of depth behind Wright-Phillips was a major concern and how would Marsch learn what he had in Abang other than throwing him right into MLS games before he was potentially ready?
Enter NYRB II.
In five USL games (all starts) for NYRB II, Abang has been able to amass 381 minutes of action against professional competition. These games have proved invaluable as Marsch has been able to call on Abang for heavy minutes in RBNY's last six MLS matches (including 90 minutes and a goal in NY's U.S. Open Cup victory over the New York Cosmos).
Abang’s tactical awareness has demonstrably improved, most evidenced by his performance in a start vs. New York City FC.
During the sequence that led to the Red Bulls’ game-tying goal, Abang’s near-post run pulled NYC FC defenders RJ Allen and Shay Facey away from Wright-Phillips, giving him plenty of space to one-time Sacha Kljestan’s cross into the upper right corner of the net.
Earlier in that very match Abang and BWP were making similar runs, tightening the space and making it easier for NYCFC to defend the Red Bulls’ attack. The youngster’s ability to adjust was instrumental in RBNY’s success that afternoon.
In providing the primary assist on the Red Bulls’ game-winning goal, Abang displayed even more field awareness by taking Mike Grella’s cross and heading it directly into the oncoming path of Chris Duvall who buried it into the roof of the net.
Pre- & Post-NYRB II: What a difference a USL side makes
As Abang has made an immediate impact for the Red Bulls, it may the careers of players like Marius Obekop that will most affected by the existence of NYRB II long-term.
In 2014, the much-maligned MLS Reserve league conducted its final season and the Red Bulls Reserves played a total eight games. That’s hardly enough for reserve players to get enough minutes to stay sharp enough to contribute to the first team. MLS teams have seen many young players fall through the cracks as they searched for minutes in the embryonic stage of their professional careers.
During the reserve league season Obekop played four of those eight games (missing the other four due to injury), amassing a total of 360 minutes of action. While Obekop has spent time on the shelf in 2015 due to injury, the Cameroon U-20 international has already seen action in 10 USL games (nine starts) to the tune of 637 minutes in addition to a senior RBNY appearance.
With 11 games still left in the USL season, players like Obekop will have many more opportunities for competitive minutes that’ll greatly enhance their ability to contribute to Marsch’s first team.
NYRB II's latest success
The latest NYRB II success story has been Anthony Wallace.
After playing for the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2014, the left back from St. Petersburg, FL joined the Red Bulls during the second phase of preseason training in Sarasota, FL. Continuing to train with RBNY as the season started, Wallace was signed to be an emergency fill-in prior to the NY's March 28 game versus Columbus Crew SC. Going the full 90 in the win, Wallace struggled.
With Kemar Lawrence and Roy Miller returning to the first team, combined with the presence of Connor Lade, Wallace's opportunities looked to be limited.
However, the 2010 MLS Cup winner with the Colorado Rapids has been able to feature prominently for NYRB II.
Appearing in six games (all starts) and seeing 540 minutes for NYRB II, Wallace returned to the RBNY starting lineup in the Red Bulls' home encounter with the New England Revolution. He was stellar at LB silencing Revs winger Juan Agudelo and chipping in a goal during NY's 4-1 destruction of their Eastern Conference rivals.
Post game, Wallace cited his time with NYRB II in keeping him prepared for his next opportunity with the first team.
"It’s been great to get games in with [NYRB II]," Wallace told the gathering media.
"It keeps me sharp. It keeps me tuned in. It keeps me fit, most importantly. It keeps me at a high level for whenever I’m able to step in for the first team."
NYRB II regulars shine against Chelsea FC
In what could be seen as the crowning moment for NYRB II this season, many members of NYRB II featured in the Red Bull's 4-2 win over Premier League Champions Chelsea F.C.
10 out of the 11 starters against Chelsea had played with the USL team at some point this year, and four of the starters are USL signed players. After the match, manager Jesse Marsch credited NYRB II manager John Wolyniec, and assistant Ibrahim Segakya for their work in developing players.
The players on the field, agreed.
"Obviously a lot of us that don't get to play with the first team go down and play with the USL [club," Kyle Reynish said after the win.
"I think a lot of us were familiar with playing with them, and we train together. I think a lot of that showed tonight. Everyone was on the same page and had the same idea on what we were trying to do."
Also scoring in that match was 16 year-old Tyler Adams, the first ever signing for NYRB II. Adams was a featured player in the academy, and now has 699 professional minutes to his name, and has starred in the holding midfield role.
"It is a lot to take in," Adams said after the match.
"We all have a system, and a philosophy that he put in our heads, a high-press, high-attacking energy mindset and we all stuck to the game plan and it ending up working out."
After years of clamor, Red Bulls fans have seen a proper reserve side begin play this Spring and become an invaluable resource for the New York Red Bulls this season. And hopefully, for years to come.