New York Red Bulls II's first-ever competitive game was against Rochester Rhinos: on March 28, 2015, the teams drew 0-0 at Red Bull Arena. They would play three more times that season, twice more in the regular season and once more in the playoffs: the Rhinos won them all, becoming the first team to knock NYRB II out of the post-season in the process.
Of course, the Rhinos were exceptionally good in 2015, winning USL's regular season and big Cup, losing just one match and conceding only 16 goals (15 in the league, one in the playoffs). In 2016, Rochester is still a good team, just not exceptionally so: it lost only five times in the regular season, but 12 ties - the most in the Eastern Conference; second-most in USL - sunk the team to fourth in the East.
The Rhinos remain tough to beat. Especially for NYRB II: three meetings this year have yielded three draws. The last game these clubs played should have been a win for the Rhinos, but Vincent Bezecourt conjured some late magic.
Seven times, NYRB II has lined up against Rochester. It has only scored in two of those games, and never once been the victor.
Fair to say this will be a tough one for NYRB II, which has never known anything but a challenge in a match against the Rhinos. It will be made tougher by the expected absence of Derrick Etienne - called up by Haiti for Caribbean Cup qualifying - and perhaps the continued absence of Devon Williams. The Red Bulls put out a short bench against Orlando City B in the first round of these playoffs; it could be a shorter bench against the Rhinos, if the club sticks by Jesse Marsch's suggestion that USL-eligible first-teamers won't be parachuted into the reserves for the playoffs.
Likely absent Etienne and definitely forced to make do without Junior Flemmings, the II team will be missing two of its most reliable and effective attacking players. Top scorer Brandon Allen is still in the side, of course. Florian Valot is no slouch as an attacking midfielder, and may relish the expanded role he'll get if Etienne is indeed away. But the most probable key to this game for NYRB II is Bezecourt.
The 23-year-old is making up for lost time. In his second appearance, and first start, for NYRB II this year, he hurt his knee and was sidelined for months. He has yet to play 900 minutes for the team this season (he's on 850 from 19 appearances), but he has been an increasingly dominant attacking force since returning from his injury. He's scored seven goals and tallied three assists for the II team so far this season - and they have all come since the beginning of August. Starting with a two-goal outing against Harrisburg City Islanders on August 2, Bezecourt has done all his scoring for NYRB II in his last 10 games (and he hasn't played 10 full games worth of minutes for the team yet).
The Rhinos have their own scoring threats. Christian Volesky is the team's top scorer; Steevan dos Santos is Rochester's answer to Bezecourt. Dos Santos has nine goals and five assists for the Rhinos this season, but he's scored five and assisted on three in his last 10 games. And he's scored in his last three matches for the club, including last week's 3-1 playoff win over Charlotte Independence.
This match promises much: this year's best team in USL against last year's double-winner. Without ever having beaten them, NYRB II has managed to take away one of the titles the Rhinos were defending this season. But Rochester knows that if it can maintain its hold over the Red Bulls, it will maintain its hold on USL Cup for at least another week.
These teams have won the last three trophies USL has handed out. Only one will still be in the running for the next one after the final whistle on October 7.
7:00 pm, Eastern; Friday, October 7, 2016
Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
How to watch:
NYRB II: Ryan Meara; Noah Powder, Aaron Long, Zach Carroll, David Najem; Tyler Adams, Dan Metzger; Florian Valot, Stefano Bonomo, Vincent Bezecourt; Brandon Allen
Rochester Rhinos (last lineup):
1-1 - one of these teams will win, but this preview is only willing to go as far as to suggest the win will come after extra time in a penalty shootout.