It was over. The New York Red Bulls II were done and dusted in Rochester, beaten by a single goal and their own inability to make the final pass connect. As the game ticked into its 88th minute, the Rhinos looked comfortable favorites to close out the match behind a defense that had been wise to almost every trick the II team could muster.
Almost every trick. The Red Bulls, it turned out, would get a shot at one more. David Najem won a free kick in a promising position outside the box. Vincent Bezecourt did the rest.
It was point stolen from Rochester, who had done more than enough to feel deserving of three points. The Rhinos' game plan had worked: stay organized at the back, get the ball forward quickly and look to catch NYRB II's defenders isolated and on their heels. The only surprise when Rochester finally derived a goal from this approach was that it didn't come from a quick break down one of the flanks. Instead, early in the second half, substitute Asani Samuel simply turned on to a through-ball down the middle and found sufficient time and space to pick his spot.
The Red Bulls had withdrawn Aaron Long at half-time: the center back took a knock late in the first half, which may have been the reason. Whatever the cause, rarely does one see a player's value so quickly and clearly illustrated by his absence.
Without Long - who had put out many a fire at the back in the first half - the NYRB II defense seemed a lot more vulnerable, and it had been bending under heavy pressure almost from the start. Samuel's goal was the Rhino's third chance in quick succession; only Ryan Meara and some flubbed shooting had been keeping Rochester at bay in the early stages of the second half.
But the Rhinos never found a second goal. And the Red Bulls were making regular visits to the final third. The team's attacking rhythm was off for the whole match. Whenever a pass seemed to have just the right weight and trajectory, the forwards appeared not have read the intention. Whenever a forward made the right sort of run, the connecting pass never arrived. This was, of course, in part due to Rochester's defense playing well, but the II team's attackers also had an off day.
John Wolyniec only had a four-man bench, including reserve 'keeper Rafa Diaz. He deployed Zoumana Simpara in the 62nd minute. It seemed a smart move: the Malian teenager has similar size to NYRB II's favored forwards - Brandon Allen and Stefanon Bonomo - but is perhaps a little quicker and a little more confident with the ball at his feet. But Woly left Allen and Bonomo out there and withdrew Florian Valot, one of the squad's most creative players.
As it turned out, the move freed up Bezecourt to take on a bigger role in the team's attacking build-up. And fresh legs in a wide position did help to stretch the Rochester back line.
But NYRB II's full backs - usually the source of extra width and bodies in the final third - had been constrained by the constant threat of the Rhinos' wide men. When Woly withdrew Noah Powder for Konrad Plewa in the 82nd minute, it seemed the game was up. Powder's two-goal performance in mid-week against Harrisburg had in part been achieved by a tactical tweak that let him get forward more freely. Now he was simply out of the game.
So it was over. Rochester was going to close out the game, take three points and the teams would perhaps see each other again in the playoffs. Until Najem - a very able stand-in for Speedy Williams and Tyler Adams in central midfield - picked up that foul a few yards outside the box, and Bezecourt snatched a point for his team.
The tie snapped the II team's seven-game winning streak, but it remains unbeaten in its last eight. The tie also gives NYRB II 63 points in USL this season: a new league points record. The team can pick a few more league records before the playoffs begin, and its next opportunity to do so will come on Saturday, September 17, against FC Montreal at Red Bull Arena.