Savor it: a New York Red Bulls team is top of its league heading into the final stretch of the regular season. It's the II team, and the lead probably won't last too long (Louisville City FC plays on Friday, August 5, against the not-so-great Pittsburgh Riverhounds), but what has seemed to be a season-long quest to top the USL Eastern Conference standings (and the league overall) is fulfilled. For now.
USL has been summited. Now it is just a question of whether NYRB II can stay at the top.
The manner of the Red Bulls' reserves ascent to the top of their Conference and league was, ultimately, fitting. After laboring for much of the game, the II team turned the last 15 minutes into a triumphant romp over a thoroughly outclassed opponent. The 5-0 win was not undeserved, but it was unexpected if you had watched the first 60 minutes or so of the game.
As expected, the II team's starting lineup was missing a number of regulars. No Tyler Adams; no Derrick Etienne; no Konrad Plewa or Aaron Long to shore up the back line; neither Ryan Meara or even Kyle Reynish in goal; not even Stefano Bonomo (suspended for a while) up front.
It was not a weak lineup by the II-team's standards: Academy grad Mason Deeds was the least experienced player on the team at kick-off, and even he had logged three appearances for NYRB II aleady this season. But it was yet another shuffled deck of starters, on the road, against a team that seemed to be finding some form after a long season of struggle.
Perhaps it was not surprising, therefore, that these Red Bulls had a tough time with Harrisburg in the first half. Anatole Abang had two good chances denied by good goalkeeping and heads-up defending, but the City Islanders had some equally inviting opportunities - and had more of them. Tim Schmoll was heroic in bailing out his team on a couple of occasions; 'keeper Rafa Diaz continued to look too good to be a fourth-string goalie (he started because Luis Robles is not certain to start RBNY's CCL match on August 3, and therefore both Ryan Meara and Kyle Reynish were therefore required as potential cover for the first team).
Between Cardel Benbow's increasingly panic-inducing runs at the back line, NYRB II managed to get on the board thanks to Junior Flemmings. The sixth-best USL U-20 player (it says here)got between his marker and a ball bouncing in the box, and was toppled for his trouble.
It was simple penalty call, and Abang duly converted from the spot.
The PK and some frantic defending gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead at half-time.
Home team Harrisburg came out in the second half with deserved confidence, and Paul Wilson subbed in for Matt Bolduc. The addition of more pace and guile to the City Islanders' attack seemed to have tipped the game decisively in the home team's favor. For about 20 minutes after half-time, the game was mostly a series of narrowly avoided disasters at the back for NYRB II. And then Dan Metzger tipped the match back toward the visitors.
The two-goal lead and the introduction of fresh legs (Vincent Bezecourt for Florian Valot; Zoumana Simpara for Brandon Allen; Ryan Mingachos for Deeds) brought renewed vigor to the Red Bulls. They weren't looking particularly good at containing Harrisburg, so why not make attack the preferred form of defense?
The II team's third goal set the tone for the rest of the match.
Congratulations to Zoumana Simpara for his first goal as a pro. But that goal was made by the ceaselessly positive play of Flemmings and Bezecourt.
Appropriately, they combined for their team's fourth.
And then Bezecourt capped the rout with something special.
NYRB II entered this game seemingly due for another stumble: a team shorn of several of its top players and on its first losing streak of the season. It left the field as the best team in USL.