New York Red Bulls II will play their 2016 USL regular season home finale as league champions, which will surely be a pleasant feeling. The team still has a few records to play for, and might be expected to enjoy an on-paper Eastern Conference mismatch: table-topping NYRB II vs rock-bottom FC Montreal. But the standings are deceptive. Montreal may be bottom of the East and second-bottom of the league, but it is one of USL's hottest teams at the moment.
Montreal's season fell apart under the strain of 19 losses over the 28 games it has played to date, but only one of those has arrived in its last seven matches. In that stretch, the team has won five (it has seven total wins all season), scored 18 goals, and conceded 11.
The recent success can largely be attributed to Montreal's attacking players. Anthony Jackson-Hamel has only played 13 games in USL so far this season, but he has scored in nine of those appearances - including a goal in six of his (and Montreal's) last seven games. The teams assists leader, Ballou Jean Yves Tabla (said to be attracting Premier League interest earlier this year) got all four of his assists for the season to date in the first three games of the current run. Those games were also Tabla's last appearances for FC Montreal, but if he plays against NYRB II, he will represent a rare sight in USL this season: a prospect who overshadows NYRB II's impressive lineup of young talent.
Montreal will have to address a couple of issues on the back line: Aron Mkungilwa and Kyle Fisher - regular starters during the recent run of success - will be suspended for this game.
Of course, NYRB II's form is good too: eight games unbeaten, seven wins in a row until running into the Rhinos in Rochester - and a loss in that game averted by Vincent Bezecourt's clutch free kick.
It is the II team's ability to eke out results with a constantly changing squad that has been its most impressive feature this season. And it may have to shuffle the lineup again this week.
Back-line leader Aaron Long played 90 minutes for the first team in CONCACAF Champions League on Thursday, and has just officially been added to the MLS roster. With an injury to Ronald Zubar possibly holding the Frenchman out of the RBNY squad that travels to Toronto this weekend, Long may be required for match-day duties in MLS, or he might simply need a rest.
Derrick Etienne is part of the MLS team, and did not feature at all in RBNY's midweek CCL outing. The Red Bulls have ample attacking midfield depth, but if one or two of Mike Grella, Gonzalo Veron, or Alex Muyl need to be rested (they all played the full 90 on Thursday), then Etienne too might be in the 18 in Toronto. He made his MLS debut in the first team's last game - against D.C. United - after all.
It is a consequence of the II team's success that it has been regularly supplying its starters to the MLS squad. Alex Muyl broke into the RBNY starting lineup relatively early in the season. Tyler Adams has taken his first team opportunities well. Long's addition to Jesse Marsch's squad also shows that those players signed to USL contracts (rather than as fringe first-teamers destined for extended minutes with NYRB II) can also force their way into the senior squad if circumstances and their own form permit.
And it is a testament to John Wolyniec's coaching that he has managed the two primary aspects of his job near-perfectly this season: he has channeled players to the first team as should be the priority of NYRB II, and he has won the USL regular season title. Competitive in USL and competing for places on the MLS roster: that is the club's dream for NYRB II's players, and they have been living it this year.
Whatever the lineup, the II team will be expected to hold its own against FC Montreal's free-scoring squad.
This game will also be the last time we get to see the Video Assistant Referee in action this season (unless USL announces an extension of the current experiment for the playoffs). It is Sorin Stoica's turn to man the middle of the field, and evaluate the whispers in his ear from the replay booth.
7:00 pm, Eastern; Saturday, 17th September, 2016
Red Bull Arena, Harrison, NJ
How to watch:
Get tickets online or at the stadium (NYRB II draws "crowds" of less than 500; it could leave tickets in stacks at Harrison PATH station and still have seats available).
Or watch on USL's YouTube channel.
Ryan Meara; Noah Powder, Zach Carroll, Tim Schmoll, Konrad Plewa; Dan Metzger, Speedy Williams; Florian Valot, Derrick Etienne, Vincent Bezecourt; Brandon Allen
FC Montreal (last lineup):
Fisher and Mkungilwa are suspended for the trip to NYRB II.
3-2 to NYRB II - FC Montreal's attack is in form, but the team has struggled to keep opponents from scoring and having a couple of starting defenders suspended probably doesn't help to address that tendency.