New York Red Bulls II's 2016 season has been extraordinary and successful by every reasonable measure. The team has dominated USL, winning the regular season title and setting records for points, wins, and goals scored in the league along the way. And it has had a very good year fulfilling its primary role as a development squad for the RBNY first team.
Rookie Alex Muyl is now a regular in the MLS team's starting lineup, making only a handful of appearances with the II team before breaking into the senior squad. Versatile defender Aaron Long has become the first out-and-out NYRB II player (he signed a contract with the USL side, not MLS, this year; now he is on loan to the MLS roster) to be poached by the first team squad from the reserves in mid-season. And the team has served its dual-role of bringing through Academy prospects (Noah Powder and Kevin O'Toole have become regulars for the Back-Up Bulls while still, ostensibly, amateurs) and rehabbing senior players (several first-teamers have had stints with the II team to test fitness or keep themselves sharp).
And it is that success that is perhaps the II team's greatest challenge heading into the USL post-season: it has achieved and surpassed most reasonable goals that it might have set for itself at the start of the year. John Wolyniec is rarely permitted to use the same match-day squad twice, for varying reasons, and he worked unexpected wonders turning a constantly-rotating lineup into the most formidable force in USL 2016.
Yes, players and coaches will want to end the year on a high and bring another trophy to Harrison. But there's no getting round the fact that NYRB II is a stepping stone for its players, and we are at the end of the season: many will be thinking about where to step to next. So Wolyniec has his work cut out simply to keep his group focused and competitive, and thinking more about the game ahead than the contract discussions that are surely scheduled for whenever the II team's season is officially over. Of course, Woly is good at managing his squad, as the team's regular season record shows.
Orlando City B is also a reserve team, so presumably has similar challenges. It is tempting to write off OCSC B's chances because it was such bad for so long, it almost coughed up its place in the post-season. A run of one point from eight games left Orlando needing a win on the road on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs. The subsequent 2-0 win over Bethlehem Steel duly clinched OCSC B's spot in the top eight of the Eastern Conference.
It could be suggested the team is in perfect playoff form: it wins when it must.
There is talent in Orlando's squad. US youth international defenders Tyler Turner and Conor Donovan have made regular appearances throughout the season; the USA national team set-up also has high hopes for 19-year-old forward Pierre Da Silva, who is OCSC B's assists leader (five for the regular season). The team's top scorer is 24-year-old Canadian Michael Cox (11 goals in the regular season), returned to North America after a pro stint in Finland.
And RBNY fans may remember blink-and-you-missed-him draft pick Andrew Ribeiro (the Red Bulls fourth-round pick of the 2013 Supplemental Draft, released during pre-season that year). Marius Obekop was NYRB II's top-scorer in 2015. He hasn't contributed any goals at all to OCSC B in 2016, for whom he mostly appears off the bench.
The Red Bulls, of course, do not lack for talent of their own. The primary question leading into this game is how much of it is available. Justin Bilyeu (starting left back under normal circumstances) and Devon Williams (potential starter in midfield) might still be recovering from injury; Junior Flemmings (increasingly influential attacking player) is out for the rest of the season; Aaron Long's loan to the first team does allow him still to play in USL, but his availability is no longer Wolyniec's call.
There is depth to cope with all those absences, but not necessarily too many more. It will be interesting also to see whether Wolyniec persists with some recent experiments: playing Tyler Adams at right back rather than his more usual central midfield spot; having top scorer Brandon Allen drop deeper to play more of a hold-up-and-lay-off role than he had been doing earlier in the season.
NYRB II is the favorite to win this match: the team beat OCSC B, 5-1, the last time these sides met at Red Bull Arena. But its challenge is to keep complacency at bay, make best use of whatever portion of the squad is fit and available, and subdue an opponent that has already played a win-or-go-home game this season - and seems to have enjoyed the experience.
4:00 pm, Eastern; Sunday, October 2, 2016
Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
How to watch:
Ryan Meara; Noah Powder, Zach Carrol, Tim Schmoll, Tyler Adams; Dan Metzger, David Najem; Florian Valot, Derrick Etienne, Vincent Bezecourt; Brandon Allen
Orlando City B (last match lineup):
Your Starting XI today vs. @BSteelFC: Ridgers, Turner, Redding, McFadden, Hayden, Neal (C), P. Ribeiro, Mendoza, Heath, Da Silva, Cox.— Orlando City B (@OrlandoCityB) September 25, 2016
2-1 to the home team - it's the playoffs and OCSC B should be as up for this game as it has been for any this season; it won't be a surprise if NYRB II wins, but it will be surprise if it is another 5-1 blowout.