New York Red Bulls II took a three-point lead in the USL Eastern Conference (and overall league) standings, and clinched a post-season berth, with a hard-fought 1-0 win over closest challenger, Louisville City FC at Red Bull Arena.
Visiting Louisville has some right to be disappointed with the result. Head coach James O'Connor opted for a familiar and successful tactic for teams facing the RalfBalling Red Bulls. The away team tried to stay compact at the back and looked to hit their hosts on the counter-attack.
Led by an eye-catching performance from (former RBNY youth player - thanks to Sacir Hot for the heads up) Kadeem Dacres, and latterly Mark Anthony Kaye, Louisville found most of its success down the flanks. Dacres gave Red Bulls Academy prospect Noah Powder one of the more challenging games of his young career, repeatedly surging into space behind the left back. But for the offside flag, Louisville would have had a goal in this game.
Up front, NYRB II brought Derrick Etienne back to the starting lineup. But the Louisville defense held relatively firm against a Red Bulls attack bolstered by the return of a man edging ever closer to a regular first-team role. In fairness to the II-team's front four, their counterparts in the MLS squad have repeatedly struggled this season against exactly the same tactic. A well-drilled defense is difficult to break down.
The Red Bulls didn't help themselves by being uncharacteristically wasteful of set-piece opportunities, but mostly they struggled with the fact Louisville was effective in disrupting the fluency of the attacking quartet. The front four was often kept isolated, the collective threat reduced to sporadic one-on-one efforts to crack their opponents' defensive resolve.
For most of the match, from NYRB II's perspective, the key performers were central midfielders Speedy Williams and Dan Metzger, and center back Tim Schmoll. Whenever Dacres got behind his full back, he was usually Schmoll's to worry about, and the big man did a pretty good job of limiting the danger posed by a savvy winger, wise to the weakness inherent in the Red Bulls' obsession with keeping full backs high.
Aaron Long stepped into Schmoll's position in the 67th minute, and seemed to do a better job of reading the game - but one should also note it was Schmoll who had to do the hard work when Louisville's legs and tactics were fresh.
In midfield, Metzger and Williams had full plates, trying to cover for an often stretched defense and connect with increasingly frustrated attacking teammates.
The turning point of the game came around the 70th minute. Junior Flemmings got on to a long ball, worked his way into the area and fired an ambitious shot on goal. The ball caromed off a couple of defenders, and landed back with Flemmings at the top of the box. He never got the chance to have another go at goal - he was brought down by a clumsy challenge, instantly whistled as a foul by referee Hilario Grajeda.
But not a penalty. That decision came only after the Video Assistant Referee had invited the notoriously penalty-blind Grajeda to watch the replay. Brandon Allen converted his 11th goal for the II team. And that would prove to be the match-winner.
Key game or not, NYRB II remains - first and foremost - a development squad. Head coach John Wolyniec took the goal as his cue to bring fresh, less experienced, legs into the game. Noah Powder left for fellow academy player Kevin O'Toole. Flemmings was withdrawn for another academy prospect, Ben Mines. Etienne came out for Vincent Bezecourt.
But the substitute who most caught the eye was once again Zoumana Simpara. The 18-year-old doesn't often get much time to make an impression on the pitch, but he has figured out how to make the most of what he is offered. In his last three outings in particular, he has made a strong case for a greater investment of on-field time in his development. He got a goal in 23 minutes off-the-bench against Harrisburg City Islanders on August 2; he got a goal out of the six minutes he was given against Orlando City B on August 12; and he very nearly got a goal against Louisville, after joining the game in the 88th minute.
NYRB II has seven matches still to play in the USL regular season. The playoffs are a certainty. While the team will surely hope to secure the league's regular season title, it will be interesting to see how much time Wolyniec allocates to his less-used players, now a post-season berth is assured and with contracts for next season an increasingly important consideration.