New York Red Bulls II kick off what will likely be the decisive week of their regular season with another visit to Bethlehem Steel.
NYRB II will play three matches between September 4 and September 10. Those three will determine whether the Red Bulls clinch the USL regular season title or sink into a battle for optimal playoff seeding heading into the last two games of their league campaign.
With a six-point lead in the standings, the reserve Red Bulls are certainly favored to win both the Eastern Conference and the overall USL league title, before heading into the post-season as favorites to lift USL Cup. But the run-in has got a little more difficult than it perhaps seemed even a week ago.
The field at Red Bull Arena is showing signs of fatigue, so NYRB II has been told to play an extra game on the road to allow the green grass of home to recover.
Of more immediate relevance: Justin Bilyeu is almost certain to be with the first team squad in Vancouver this weekend, since regular starting RBNY left back Kemar Lawrence is on international duty. Regular 'keeper Ryan Meara might also be in Canada, if Luis Robles isn't fit, or even if he's a game-time decision and RBNY decided to bring three goalkeepers along just in case. And something is up with Junior Flemmings.
If both players are missing against Bethlehem Steel, they leave substantial shoes to be filled - though Noah Powder looks increasingly like a first-team fullback in waiting, so maybe Bilyeu's absence is less troubling.
NYRB II will be confident regardless. The lineup changes almost every week, but the reserves' results remain admirably consistent. They are currently enjoying a five-game winning streak. The team has played the Steel twice already this season, winning 4-0 at Red Bull Arena in April and 1-0 on the road in June. Short-handed or not, the Red Bulls have every reason to be optimistic.
That is, of course, a mixed blessing. The Steel is a team fighting for a post-season. It should be up for this one, even if its form is not great.
Philly takes a different approach to its reserves from the one adopted by RBNY. The RalfBalling Red Bulls like their second team to be showcase for younger players. Senior first-teamers drop down occasionally for rehab starts or to sharpen up after a prolonged stretch on the bench, but there is no regular veteran presence in the lineup (unless you count Ryan Meara - which you certainly can, since he is 25 and in his fifth season as a pro).
Bethlehem Steel has plenty of prospects. The Union has high hopes for Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty; 19-year-old Eric Ayuk features regularly, as do several players on the fringes of Philly's first team squad. But the Steel has lined its reserves with a layer of veterans. Most notably, Ryan Richter and James Chambers. Richter - a defender - is the Steel's leading scorer; he shares the assists lead with Chambers.
Keep an eye out also for RBNY Academy grad Bolu Akinyode, who has settled in as regular starter in Bethlehem.
In the long run, if Philly stick with this philosophy, it ought to generate more consistent results in USL than NYRB II's helter-skelter, how-many-academy-kids-can-we-play-today reserve-team strategy. But both squads are ultimately to be judged by the number of players they graduate to their respective first teams, not points in the league. NYRB II will turn over more prospects, more quickly; Bethlehem seems to favor the slow cooker over the microwave.
This year, NYRB II's method is providing the superior product on the field. But it is the long-term view that counts most for both squads. And we need a few more seasons of both to say which team has the more effective philosophy.
3:00 pm, Eastern; Sunday, September 4, 2016
Goodman Stadium, Bethlehem, PA
How to watch:
Go see it live if you can. Goodman Stadium is pretty, in a home-to-totalitarian-hobbits sort of way.
Goodman Stadium, I'd rather be here. pic.twitter.com/GGMQRNATaP— Football__Tweet (@Football__Tweet) July 26, 2016
Otherwise, the USL YouTube channel will provide what you need.
NYRB II: Rafa Diaz; Noah Powder, Zach Carroll, Aaron Long, David Najem; Dan Metzger, Speedy Williams; Florian Valot, Derrick Etienne, Vincent Bezecourt; Brandon Allen
Can't pretend to know too much about the ins and outs of the Steel, but the team's is known to be missing Cory Burke and Seku Conneh - absent for international duty. We're expecting something close to the above, with Cole Missimo maybe stepping in as one of Restrepo or Fernandes (or both) steps out.
For a more informed view, The Brotherly Game keeps a close eye on Bethlehem Steel.
Predicted scoreline: 2-1 to the home team.
On current form, NYRB II should cruise past the rapidly decelerating Steel, and that's exactly why this game feels like an obvious place for the back-up Bulls to stumble. They are good, but they have also been a little fortunate - and luck is an essential ingredient of most winning streaks. Calling this a close game the Red Bulls drop to a controversial refereeing decision for no better reason than they are due a match when the calls go against them.