You may remember Bethlehem Steel as the team that stumbled out of Red Bull Arena after a 4-0 drubbing from NYRB II back in April. Comforting as those memories might be, the New York Red Bulls' USL team will do well to deliver another lopsided win over Philadelphia Union's reserves. Despite losing two of its first three games of this season - including that loss to NYRB II - and despite the fact two of its three wins to date have been against league-makeweight Montreal FC, the Steel has shown signs of growing into its inaugural season.
The Union's B-team has lost only once in its last seven games, and hasn't lost at Goodman Stadium since dropping its home opener to FC Cincinnati on April 3. The most recent game was perhaps the Steel's most impressive result to date: a 2-2 draw in Rochester that the Rhinos (reigning USL-champs) only salvaged with a last-minute goal.
The Steel is anchored by a core of veteran players: James Chambers is a 29-year-old midfielder with considerable experience in his native Ireland; Michael Daly is a 29-year-old veteran of American soccer's lower leagues; Ryan Richter is a 27-year-old defender who has bounced in and out of MLS and has the distinction of being the only player to have appeared in every one of Bethlehem Steel's league games to date.
To such signings are added a layer of promising younger players, like Union Academy grad Derrick Jones and New York Red Bulls Academy product (and former NYRB II man) Bolu Akinyode - reportedly an increasingly effective pair on the field and roommates off it. And, of course, the Union loans down a generous helping of its fringe players for development and fitness.
In time, this combination of seasoned pros and emerging talent from the Union's well-regarded Academy could gel into one of USL's more consistently successful teams.
It is a slightly different approach from that taken by NYRB II to date. You will rarely find a player over the age of 25 in the Red Bulls' reserves lineup. The team's minutes leaders so far this season are 19-year-old Derrick Etienne (back from training with Haiti, so presumably available this week), 22-year-old Brandon Allen, and 20-year-old Junior Flemmings.
Institutional memory is the veteran core of NYRB II, which is very often built around young but well-drilled Academy grads who form the spine of a team whose primary purpose is to develop pro players proficient in the tactical system the Red Bulls now deploy across their entire (global) soccer set-up. Promising young players from outside the academy like Flemmings (leading the team in goals and assists at the moment) then get to compete for places against RBNY-reared talent that is a little more accustomed to the tactical requirements of the club - and it all hopefully leads to a healthy competition for minutes on the field, as well as the development of the next generation of Red Bulls' starters.
NYRB II will probably have to make do without the services of (joint) top scorer Anatole Abang, who was playing for Cameroon in Mauritania on Friday. Tyler Adams is presumed to still be training with the USA U-18s (as mentioned - the regulars on this team are young). But there will be a slew of other first-teamers eligible for a quick loan down to the reserves because RBNY isn't due to play again until June 15. Indeed, were they so inclined, the Red Bulls could treat this match as a rehearsal for that US Open Cup trip to Rochester Rhinos.
More likely, however, given RBNY's incessant bad luck with injuries this season and the fact NYRB II has a home game about a week before the USOC fixture (so perhaps a more fitting moment for a rehearsal, if one is required), expect to see this game feature mostly those players who have contributed regularly to the reserve Red Bulls so far this year.
In MLS, RBNY does not lack for rivalry games: the old enemy, D.C. United; never-quite-an-enemy, Philadelphia; slapstick neighbors, NYCFC; just about any other team that manages to string together two or three compelling matches against the Red Bulls. But in USL, there aren't a great many obvious analogs for the rivalries enjoyed by the first team. In part, that is because NYRB II has only existed for a season and a half. In part that is because obvious proxy rivalries won't get off the ground until DC or NYCFC develops reserve teams with identities clearly inherited from their parent clubs.
The idea that the Union and RBNY are great MLS rivals doesn't stand up to great scrutiny, but at the USL level it might have better fortune. Philly has a good development system and the early work with Bethlehem Steel suggests the team will carry a strong imprint of that system. RBNY has similar intentions for NYRB II. The two reserve squads represent differing views on the best way to develop young talent in USL, and the regular meeting of those differing views might give rise to the sort of tit-for-tat one-upmanship that fuels a rivalry. Right now, they're one game in to the insoluble argument over which team has the right approach, and RBNY holds a four-goal-one-win lead in the argument. We'll see if Phily has a decent counterpoint to make on Sunday.
4:00 pm 3:30 pm, Eastern; Sunday, June 5
UPDATE: Kickoff moved to 3:30 pm
UPDATE: Steel fans, today's kickoff has been moved up from 4 to 3:30 p.m. Gates will open at 2:45 p.m. #WeAreSteel— Bethlehem Steel FC (@BSteelFC) June 5, 2016
Where: Goodman Stadium, Bethlehem, PA
How to watch:
Predicted Starting NYRB II lineup:
Predicted Bethlehem Steel lineup:
Have a read of the preview from our friends over at Brotherly Game.