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MATCH PREVIEW - PDL Eastern Conference Championship Final - New York Red Bulls U23s vs Jersey Express

Three matches away from eternal glory of some sort.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls U23s are three matches away from being back-to-back national champions. Following their 4-0 thrashing of the GPS Portland Phoenix, they're in the Eastern Conference Championship final against Mid Atlantic Division foe Jersey Express. The Express won a thrilling match in a shootout over the Charlotte Eagles, 2-1 (5-4).

The match is at 5 p.m. at NJIT Stadium in Newark, New Jersey and the winner advances to the national final four.

The last time these two teams played

The Red Bulls and the Jersey Express played on July 15th with the Red Bulls winning 3-1. Zach Knudson opened the scoring for the U23s in the 18th minute and Brian White doubled the lead in the 36th minute. Carlos Alvarenga pulled one back in the 78th minute, but Knudson put the match away and hit for the brace with a goal in the 82nd minute.

Goalkeeper Evan Louro made three saves to preserve the win.

Random and technically unrelated (but not really), the Jersey Express beat New York Red Bulls II in the Open Cup.

How they got here

New York Red Bulls U23s

Managed by Rob Elliott, the Baby Bulls fought their way through the tough Mid Atlantic Division, finishing first and going 9-2-3. They lost two consecutive games at the end of May/beginning of June, but have been on a tear and are unbeaten in their last ten matches. The U23s ended the regular season with a 10-0 pounding of the Westchester Flames which helped them skip past the preliminary rounds of the playoffs. They won their Eastern Conference semifinal match with a 4-0 win over the GPS Portland Phoenix.

The team is formidable, made up of a host of former Academy players and several unaffiliated college standouts. The Baby Bulls feature a diverse attack with many different weapons and a strong, seasoned defense.

Jersey Express

The Express (based in Newark, New Jersey) finished the season in third in the Mid Atlantic Division with a 8-3-3 record. They won their first playoff match, 3-1, over the Long Island Rough Riders and beat the Charlotte Eagles in a shootout in the league semifinal.

The Express won the Mid Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference Championship in 2014, losing to the eventual champion Michigan Bucks in the national semifinals, 2-1.

Key players

New York Red Bulls U23s

  • Chris Lema (midfielder): The Georgetown midfielder is turning into quite the destroyer in front of the backline. He'll be responsible for disrupting the Express' attack and should be up to the task.
  • Chris Thorsheim (midfielder/defender): A very under-the-radar player, the soon to be Bucknell senior is capable of playing on the backline and as a box-to-box midfielder. He doesn't necessarily stand out, but is a necessary cog in the Starting XI and you appreciate his contributions the more you watch him play.
  • Scott Thomsen (defender): If you're not familiar with the left back by now, then there's no helping you. He guided Virginia and the Baby Bulls to national championships last year and is capable of producing highlight reel goals and assists from anywhere past the center circle.

Jersey Express

  • Matthew Turner (goalkeeper): One of the top keepers in the PDL, Turner returned to the Express after leading them to the national semifinals last season. He's also a standout for Fairfield University, giving up only one goal every two matches and leading the NCAA in save percentage in 2014. Turner's an under-the-radar MLS prospect and will hopefully get a look with the New York Red Bulls USL outfit next season.
  • Carlos Alvarenga Silva (midfielder): He might come off the bench, but the midfielder frequently pushes into the box. Silva racked 6 goals and 10 assists during the regular season and Lema will be charged with containing him.
  • Chris Karcz (midfielder): The 32-year old former Rutgers standout and New York Red Bulls reserve (yes, in 2007) is the Express' leading goal scorer. Despite standing 5'11', he can act as a target striker and consistently wins headers in the box.

Some questions before the Conference Final

  • Okay, now who starts in goal? Evan Louro is off to Michigan, so it comes down to Michael Lansing (PDA/Bucknell) or Joe Ohaus (PDA/Duke). Lansing played last night and backstopped the team to the 2014 NPSL Championship, so I'm going to guess he's getting the start.
  • Will Jersey Express be mentally and physically exhausted from yesterday's match? Let's hope so. Two matches in two days isn't easy. One team played a match that went all the way to a shootout, the other won a 4-0 laugher; in a vacuum, I'm picking the latter to win every single time.
  • Can the Baby Bulls defense stand firm against a strong Express offense? Both teams have strong offenses and the match could turn into a wild, back and forth affair, but the U23s have a backline stocked with talented players like Thomsen, Timothy Schmoll, and Kevin Politz.

Where does the winner of this match go?

The winner advances to the national semifinal to take on the Ocala Stampede, the winner of the Southern Conference, on Friday, July 31st at a host site that has yet to be determined. Thankfully, we know that site will not be the barn where the Michigan Bucks play (shout out to Tolstoy).

The league championship will also be at the same yet-to-be-determined host site against the winner of the Sounders FC U23s and K-W United FC semifinal match.

Can we watch?

Unfortunately, the match will not be streamed. The Jersey Express Twitter account will keep you posted.

Score prediction

The New York Red Bulls U23s advance to the national final four with a 2-1 win.