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New York Red Bulls II make first USL Eastern Conference final with first win over Rochester Rhinos

NYRB II's 2016 season is still alive.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It was over. New York Red Bulls II had twice taken a lead against Rochester Rhinos, and twice been pegged back. It was no great surprise when the Rhinos went ahead: Rochester had been the more threatening team for much of the game. If anything, it was surprising it took until the 110th minute for the visitors to claim their reward for a well-conceived and well-executed game plan, but once the lead had been won, it seemed inevitable the more experienced side would prevail.

And that is how it was playing out in the last few minutes of hard-fought match: NYRB II surged forward, Rochester held firm. Until Dan Metzger collected a flick-on in the box, and was chopped down. Penalty. And Brandon Allen converted.

Match tied: more penalties.

Even a shoot-out seemed to favor Rochester. The Rhinos had the more experienced lineup and the USL's top 'keeper, 2016 Golden Glove winner Tomas Gomez. The teams matched each other shot for shot through three rounds. Rochester's fourth man to the spot was Steevan Dos Santos: the player who has most tormented NYRB II in the team's brief, lopsided rivalry with the Rhinos.

In last year's playoffs, Dos Santos scored twice to ease Rochester past the Red Bulls. This year, he had a starring role again, bagging another brace to twice equalize for his team. But the Rhinos' star fired his kick over Ryan Meara's crossbar.

Metzger put the II team ahead in the shootout, but there was still a round of kicks left. Georgios Kyriazis - an assistant coach for Rochester; older than NYRB II's assistant coach Ibrahim Sekagya - scored to put the pressure on the II team's fifth-round spot-kicker: Konrad Plewa. Like Dos Santos, he had featured in last year's playoff meeting between these team. Unlike Dos Santos, he hadn't covered himself in glory: Plewa was sent off in the first half and watched Rochester claim victory as a spectator.

In 2016, Plewa has had an unusual season. A regular starter for most of the year, he had a stroke at the end of July. His return to any sort of playing time is a triumph in itself. Scarcely two months ago, it wasn't clear if he would ever play again. On October 7, he was taking the most important kick of NYRB II's two-year existence: the one that might finally get the II team past Rochester Rhinos.

He did it.

It was a remarkable finish to a remarkable game. In seven prior meetings, NYRB II had never beaten Rochester. Technically, the II team still hasn't really beaten Rochester - it has advanced on a tie-breaker because one of these teams had to go through to the next round of the playoffs.

All three preceding games at Red Bull Arena between these sides had ended 0-0. And NYRB II had never scored first against the Rhinos.

That made Derrick Etienne's opening goal doubly special; triply special, because Rochester had started to look much the better team by the time Etienne surprised his marker and 'keeper Gomez with a near-post shot.

The lead didn't last long. Dos Santos equalized off a quickly-taken free kick that exploited a distracted defense to find the Rhinos' forward lurking unmarked at the far post.

Improbably, since Rochester was giving the Red Bulls no space or time in midfield, the home team went ahead again just before half-time thanks to the quick feet and quicker thinking of its attacking midfield trio. Vincent Bezecourt played a one-two with Etienne, found Florian Valot, who first-time a shot at Gomez. The shot was parried, but Brandon Allen pounced on the rebound.

Without ever really looking comfortable, the Red Bulls had a 2-1 lead at the half.

Rochester came out firing for the second half, setting the injustice of two goals conceded against the run of play within 10 minutes of the restart. Dos Santos nodded home easily in the 55th minute.

But the Rhinos never pressed home their advantage, and NYRB II couldn't make one of its occasional counter-punches land. The two sides tussled fruitlessly through 90 minutes and the first half of extra-time. And then Wal Fall scored in the 110th minute to set the game on track for its extraordinary finale.

The II team celebrated like it had won USL Cup - and the likelihood that no remaining game in 2016 will match the intensity of this one is perhaps the greatest threat to the Red Bulls' designs on the USL Championship. The Back-up Bulls may struggle to raise themselves for the next match (against either Louisville City or Charleston Battery), or - if they get that far - the final game of the USL season. This was their final, and they won.

But raise themselves they must if this season is to end as it should: on a high note. NYRB II has had one of the all-time best regular seasons in USL history. It has conquered its most challenging opponent at the eighth time of asking. The season is not a bust if there is a slip-up at the end. But it will feel that way.

The Eastern Conference final is the game that matters most now. NYRB II has the weekend to enjoy this win over Rochester and find out who it will play next. And then it will be back to work, to summon the resolve to give this season the finale the reserves deserve.