New York Red Bulls II will play the biggest game in its short history on Sunday, October 23, at 8 pm: the 2016 USL Cup final. It's an impressive feat for a team that has only existed for two years, but NYRB II's opponent, Swope Park Rangers, went one better: making USL Cup final in their inaugural season.
Both teams are MLS reserve squads (SPR's parent is Sporting Kansas City), using USL as a testing ground for younger players with first-team dreams. This will be the first time two MLS B-teams have contested the USL's Championship game - and the winner will be the first B-team to lift USL Cup (LA Galaxy II was the first B-team finalist, losing to Rochester Rhinos in last year's big match).
NYRB II is the 2016 USL regular-season champion, riding an unbeaten streak that stretches back 13 games to August 2. But the team's most recent matches have been toss-ups: playoff bouts with both Rochester and Louisville City FC went all the way to penalty shootouts, and in both games the Red Bulls needed to equalize to force the PKs.
SPR's regular-season form was not as impressive as that of NYRB II, though it did close out its league campaign with four consecutive wins. In the playoffs, however it has conceded just one goal and scored eight. The only scare in Rangers' run to the final came in their Western Conference semifinal against Orange County Blues. SPR limped into extra-time with only nine men on the field after seeing two players sent off, and the Blues seemed inevitable winners. But Dane Kelly snatched a goal against the run of play and SPR held out for victory.
Perhaps more than the 3-0 playoff wins that bracketed the 2-1 nail-biter, it was the Rangers' rearguard performance against OC Blues that highlights their greatest strength: defense.
SPR's run from the fourth seed in the West to the USL Cup final has been built on a recently acquired defensive solidity. Center backs Amer Didic and Oumar Ballo have yet to experience a loss for Swope Park when paired together at the the heart of the back line: SPR is 13-0-2 with the duo in the lineup at CB. 'Keeper Adrian Zendejas arrived in mid-season, had to wait until the end of August for his debut - and hasn't looked back. SPR has won all eight games in which Zendejas has started in goal.
The durability of the defense provides a platform for a versatile attack. In the regular season, SPR had no double-digit scorer, but forwards Mark Anthony Gonzalez (nine goals), Kris Tyrpak (seven), and Dane Kelly (six) shared the burden effectively. Midfielder Tyler Pasher chipped in with five goals. The team's leading regular-season assist-man was Brazilian midfielder Ayrton, a product of the Corinthians academy.
Swope Park is coached by Marc Dos Santos, one of the most conspicuously successful coaches in North American lower-league soccer. This is the second year he is contesting a Cup final: he guided Ottawa Fury to last season's NASL Soccer Bowl.
As might be expected of any team reaching its league's last game of the year, SPR has lost a few key contributors along the way. Midfielder Ualefei was ever-present in the regular season, but suffered a torn ACL before the playoff game against OC Blues. Defender Tommy Meyer was suspended for six games for the events that led to his red card during that Western Conference semifinal. Forward Nansel Selbol was sent off in SPR's last game - against Vancouver Whitecaps 2 - and will also miss the Cup final.
SPR has got all eight of its playoff goals from its three main scoring threats: Gonzalez and Tyrpak have three each; Kelly has two in the post-season to date. Pasher has three assists.
NYRB II, of course, has its own talent. Brandon Allen - the team's top scorer this season (and all-time) - is tied with Gonzalez, Tyrpak, and Rochester's Steevan Dos Santos for the post-season scoring lead, with three goals. Vincent Bezecourt matches Pasher's three assists in the playoffs for a share of the post-season assists lead. Derrick Etienne has been less statistically prolific in the post-season, but is arguably the team's foremost attacking threat.
Further back, 'keeper Ryan Meara would starting in MLS but for awful luck with injuries; center back Aaron Long has forced himself into RBNY's first-team squad as cover for the club's injury-prone senior defenders; midfield pairing Dan Metzger and Tyler Adams are seasoned USA youth internationals within their respective age groups.
The Red Bulls lost live-wire winger Junior Flemmings to injury during the regular season, and stalwart midfielder Devon Williams is suspended for the Cup final after selflessly sacrificing himself with a last-man foul to keep his team in the game as it battled to contain Louisville City in the Eastern Conference final. Full-back Noah Powder is on international duty with Trinidad and Tobago's U-20 team.
But the Red Bulls have compensated for Flemmings' absence with Bezecourt, who has returned from his own long-term injury to become one of the II-team's most reliable attacking players. And Williams was only just back from injury for the game against Louisville: NYRB II has figured out how to work without him.
The team's should match up well: both are relatively settled at this stage of the season; each has lost a key player or two, but has its core mostly intact; neither has lost a game for a while; both emulate the styles of their respective MLS parents. The latter point means we can expect to see two teams that like to press aggressively fly at each other with confidence.
New York Red Bulls II vs Swope Park Rangers
When: 8:00 pm, Eastern; Sunday, October 23, 2016
Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
How to watch
The game won't sell out: buy a ticket if you have the option of watching live at Red Bull Arena.
Radio: Sirius XM FC 85
NYRB II: Ryan Meara; Kevin O'Toole, Zach Carroll, Aaron Long, David Najem; Dan Metzger, Tyler Adams; Vincent Bezecourt, Florian Valot, Derrick Etienne; Brandon Allen
Swope Park Rangers (last lineup):
Ever Alvarado should be back from suspension and might be expected to start at left back.
2-2: these teams have never played each other before, so there's no history to go on. NYRB II seems to have a knack for taking games to penalties at the moment, so the bet here is that happens again.