Having clinched a playoff place, New York Red Bulls II's next task is to see if the USL regular season title can be coaxed into the team's trophy cabinet. There are six games remaining to do so, and while NYRB II is currently sitting on a six point cushion at the top of the league, it does have challengers.
One challenger: FC Cincinnati. This is Cincy's first year in USL. It has been an auspicious inaugural season mostly because Cincinnati has embraced its new soccer club. The team enjoys the best attendances in the the league by some margin, averaging more than 16,000 (16,957 - says Wikipedia; so close to 17,000) per game. The league-wide attendance average is 3,691. Second-best on the 2016 USL attendance list is Sacramento Republic, drawing close to 11,500 per game.
Cincinnati's biggest problem at Red Bull Arena might be getting used to the crowd, or lack thereof. NYRB II is bottom of the league's attendance averages (380 per game), typically struggling to bring in even 500 fans. There may be a few more at this match because it follows RBNY's MLS tilt at New England Revolution. Those who choose to stick around at Red Bull Arena for a 5:40 kick off (you should be done by 7:30 - what reason not to stay?) will see two of the best teams in USL this season.
Cincy has accumulated 43 points from 23 games this season, losing just four matches to date in USL. That is a good record, surpassed only by Eastern Conference rivals Louisville City (47 points from 25 games) and, of course, NYRB II (53 points from 24 games).
Cincinnati's on-field success has been marshaled by former USMNT stalwart John Harkes. The trip to Harrison is a homecoming for Harkes: he was born and raised in Kearny, and he had a brief stint as an assistant coach at RBNY under Bruce Arena.
Harkes has a robust squad comprised of several names familiar to MLS fans. Sean Okoli has been scoring the goals for the team. The 23-year-old Seattle Sounders Academy grad spent 2014 getting not-a-lot of time with the Sounders, and was then flipped out to the Revs for the 2015 season - where he also didn't get much playing time. But handed a regular start in USL, he has scored 11 in 22 appearances.
A veteran core provides experience to the attack. Corben Bone (27; stints with Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union before settling in to USL with Wilmington Hammerheads last season) is the team's co-leader in assists (five for the season to date). Omar Cummings, 34, also has five assists - and three goals - in limited minutes. The former Colorado Rapids and Houston Dynamo player is a doubt for the NYRB II game, however.
At the back, keep an eye out for defender Austin Berry - the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year. Berry seemed set for a long career in MLS, but he was traded to the Union in 2014, found his time limited by injury, and was ultimately loaned out to South Korean club FC Anyang in 2015. The 27-year-old is back in the USA now, and may yet bounce up a level to MLS again if he can catch the right sort of attention. He scored in Cincy's last game - the 1-1 tie with Rochester Rhinos.
RBNY fans may be interested to see Eric Stevenson. Picked up by RBNY in the 2014 draft (ahead of current NYRB II player, Aaron Long), Stevenson had a season in Harrison - contributing to the team's ill-fated CONCACAF Champions League stint - but was released before the start of the 2015 campaign. He wears #10 for Cincinnati, and has scored three goals and tallied one assist in 19 appearances.
Both teams played in mid-week, so both will play on short rest. Still, NYRB II should have much the same set of players available for selection on Sunday as it had for Wednesday's trip to Toronto. Stefano Bonomo made a case for a return to the starting lineup in 22 minutes off the bench against TFC II. Zoumana Simpara has also staked a claim to a starting spot with a succession of encouraging cameos as a substitute.
NYRB II head coach John Wolyniec is rarely able to put out the same starting lineup in back-to-back games, but this match might provide that opportunity. And maybe he will take it.
Derrick Etienne appeared to have an injury when he left the field in Toronto, which might provide Vincent Bezecourt with another starting opportunity.
And the Video Assistant Referee will once again be in action at Red Bull Arena.
Sunday, August 28 at 5:40 pm
Red Bull Arena, Harrison, NJ
How to watch:
NYRB II: Ryan Meara; Justin Bilyeu, Zach Carroll, Aaron Long, Noah Powder; Tyler Adams, Dan Metzger; Florian Valot, Derrick Etienne, Junior Flemmings; Brandon Allen.
FC Cincinnati (starters for last match):
Swap out Cummings for Sean Okoli, and that might be about right.
2-2 - Cincy is unbeaten in its last five games and should have enough up front to trouble NYRB II's back line. Flemmings and Etienne are in something like their best form of the season to date, and are enough to trouble any USL defense.