New York Red Bulls II and Rochester Rhinos combined to deliver one of the most exciting matches in Red Bull Arena's short history.
The 2016 USL Eastern Conference semifinal between the teams defied the script written by their shared past: on three prior occasions, Rhinos and Red Bulls had clashed in Harrison and no goals had been scored; overall, the two sides had met seven times previously, and NYRB II had never emerged the victor. The narrative around Rochester-Red Bulls II games will need to be revisited after a match expected to be heavy on defense and light on scoring brought six goals and was fittingly decided by a penalty shootout.
Those penalties, witnessed by a small crowd mostly gathered in the sections of the Arena that comprise the South Ward - claiming the best spot from which to cheer and jeer the spot kicks - brought even further drama to a see-saw battle that had finished 3-3 after 120 minutes.
Level after three rounds of penalties, Rochester blinked first. Steevan Dos Santos skied his kick, and Dan Metzger coolly converted his effort to put NYRB II ahead with one round to go before the awkward prospect of sudden-death PKs.
Rochester's Georgios Kyriazis leveled the shootout at four apiece, to put all the pressure on Konrad Plewa. One kick to see his team past an opponent it had never beaten. One kick to put the Red Bulls' reserves into the USL Eastern Conference Final. Plewa channeled whatever nerves he was feeling into an emphatic strike that skimmed the underside of the crossbar, billowed the net, and brought his teammates and coaches on to the pitch in jubilation.
"It's amazing...I've been through some stuff this year, and to get this penalty - it's really indescribable. I'm just enjoying the moment right now and I'm at a loss for words," said Plewa, for whom the prospect of any soccer at all was put in doubt when he suffered a stroke at the end of July. "Rochester has been a thorn in our side for the last two years. They are a very good team, they're well coached, they're organized and tough to break down. They stuck to their system and they are difficult to play against."
Plewa wasn't next up after Dos Santos' miss, but he knew what it likely meant for him, given his place as NYRB II's fifth designated penalty-taker: "When he missed, I just looked up to the sky and said please God, let me bring this home."
Plewa brought it home.
Rochester has become arguably NYRB II's greatest rival over the past two seasons, but it took 290 minutes of competitive soccer between the teams for either to score a goal against the other at Red Bull Arena. Derrick Etienne Jr. finally bit the bagel and registered the first ever goal in a Red Bulls-Rhinos match in Harrison.
In the 20th minute, Vincent Bezecourt sent a long pass to Etienne Jr., switching the field and setting his teammate up for a one-on-one with defender Ryan Lee James. Etienne used his marker to briefly screen the ball from 'keeper Tomas Gomez, deftly cutting his shot inside the near post as the USL's Golden Glove winner sought to cover the larger target to his left.
The lead didn't last. Once Etienne had demonstrated it was possible for a goal to be scored, Rochester seized the invitation to join the party. Two minutes after falling behind, the Rhinos were level. Christian Volesky took a free kick quickly, finding Dos Santos unmarked.
The Rhinos had the better of the first half, but it was the Red Bulls who went in at the break with the lead. In the 44th minute, Vincent Bezecourt coordinated an attack down the left flank, combining with Etienne to open up the defense and find Florian Valot, who one-timed a shot at Gomez. The rebound was converted Brandon Allen.
It took Rochester 10 minutes from the restart to get level again. Dos Santos picked his spot with a header after James' cross found him in space in front of goal.
The score was still 2-2 after 90 minutes, sending the game into extra time. After a scoreless first half, Wal Fall put the Rhinos ahead for the first time in the 110th minute.
There were only 10 minutes left to play and Rochester had looked the better team for most of the match. But NYRB II pushed forward, pressured the Rhinos' goal, and got a chance to extend the season just as the game seemed to be destined to finish in Rochester's favor. Dan Metzger was taken down from behind by Dominic Samuel and referee Lucas Guarda pointed to the spot. Brandon Allen stepped up to take the penalty in the 119th minute, and beat his former Georgetown teammate, 'keeper Tomas Gomez, to send the match to a shootout.
"Throughout the whole game we knew it was going to be a battle, but on the PK I think Dan [Metzger] had confidence in me - and the whole team has confidence in me to take the PK and I buried it right down the middle," said Allen, "It's been a battle against them, but we knew they were going to sit in and we took advantage of them the whole day and got the win."
Technically, of course, this is another draw against the Rochester Rhinos: the match was 2-2 after 90 minutes and 3-3 after 120. But it was also a win - NYRB II is in the next round of the playoffs - and head coach John Wolyniec looked thrilled to finally beat the Rhinos, who have always played his team tough.
"We knew we were going to be up against a great opponent and this was going to be a tough test. We did a lot of good things, we made some mistakes. Best thing about the effort was that we just kept on fighting, kept going and when things looked dark we still pushed forward and the guys who took the penalties looked great," said Wolyniec.
Rochester head coach Bob Lilley is one of the most experienced and successful tacticians in American lower-league soccer. He was gracious in defeat: "I thought we would cause some problems, we played on the front foot against Charlotte. We've played well going forward and we knew that they would create chances and be dangerous," said Lilley,
"A bit tighter and not as open, but tonight knowing that this game was going 120 minutes both sides had the mentality of wanting to win, nobody wanted to hang around and get to penalties. But they found a way to get an equalizer late and took their penalties very well."
And now this II team awaits the winner of the Louisville City-Charleston Battery Eastern Conference semifinal. The Red Bulls will host the Eastern Conference final on Sunday, October 16th - in a double-header, after the senior side faces the Columbus Crew earlier in the afternoon, at Red Bull Arena.