The New York Red Bulls promised October 16 would be Supporters Day, and delivered a double-header that saw the MLS and USL sides celebrate significant milestones in their respective seasons. RBNY effectively clinched the top seed in the East for the MLS playoffs by beating Columbus Crew, 3-2, to establish a (probably) insurmountable lead at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. And then NYRB II won the USL Eastern Conference final to clinch a spot in the year's USL Championship game.
The II team needed penalties to get past Louisville City FC, and needed a late equalizer in regulation to even get that far. But if nerves seemed to get the better of NYRB II during match play, once the contest moved to the penalty spot, the II team showed the greater resolve. Ryan Meara was man of the match, steering his team to victory with two saves during the shootout to clinch the win.
The NYRB II captain set the tone for his squad when he stopped the opening PK, blocking Cameron Lancaster's spot kick. And he forced an end to the contest by deflecting Ben Newnam's kick on to his crossbar. The ball bounced away from goal, and the Red Bulls had no need for a fifth attempt: they won the shootout, 4-3.
The grind pays off!! Victorious in PKs. Congrats boys, championship here we come! pic.twitter.com/JPOH7epACT— NYRB II (@NYRBII) October 17, 2016
"We are pumped up, we're all really happy. I think the fact that we went through it last week against Rochester, going through the penalty shootout, I think it gave us some confidence tonight that once it got to penalties we were ready," said Ryan Meara, "Sometimes, like against Rochester last week for whatever reason, I went the wrong way a couple of times and tonight I had the right feel for it and it's just one of those things you just kind of have to let your instincts take over and when you do pick a side, you have to go all out - and, luckily, tonight I made a couple of saves."
NYRB II had worked hard to get back into the game after Louisville City opened the scoring in the 11th minute. Paco Craig scored with the back of his head, diverting an Aodhan Quinn set piece over Meara and into the net.
With the lead, Louisville could focus on maintaining defensive shape and waiting for the right moment to push forward. NYRB II was contained and becalmed. As the match ticked toward its final 15 minutes, the home team looked ever more likely to be exiting the playoff. But the Red Bulls' French Connection came up big in the 74th minute. A Vincent Bezecourt free kick found Florian Valot, who headed the equalizer home.
"I had a lot of space, I was beating two defenders and I had so much time to see the ball coming and I was alone. I just put it on target and it was a goal," said Valot.
NYRB II had a hard time breaking Louisville City down, but the visitors were visibly diminished after 120 minutes of mostly outplaying the Red Bulls. Starting 'keeper Greg Ranjitsingh was forced out of the match by injury in the 53rd minute. Tim Dobrowolski stepped up ably as his replacement, but in extra time Louisville lost another man: Sean Reynolds was red-carded for a sloppy tackle in the 105th minute. And goal scorer Paco Craig followed Reynolds to the sidelines when he picked up his second yellow toward the end of the second half of extra time.
The Red Bulls were also reduced in number by the time penalties rolled around. Speedy Williams had little choice but to make a tactical foul to shut down a potentially game-changing break, and was sent off for his trouble. tt was not a controversial call, nor a controversial play: in the 118th minute, the priority is not to lose; Williams made sure his team didn't lose, protected the 1-1 scoreline, and therefore got to watch a Red Bulls win.
"I wish there was another word for more proud than 'proud', but the group's been great. We've had such a great season, guys have poured so much into it and we certainly like to make it interesting," said John Wolyniec, "But, you know, a lot of times that makes it more enjoyable when you succeed. So happy for them. The guys are real happy and they deserve it."
John Wolyniec's II team will face the Western Conference Champion, Swope Park Rangers, for the USL Championship on Sunday, October 23rd.