The New York Red Bulls II are closing out the 2016 USL regular season in some style. The team's 2-0 win over Bethlehem Steel on September 4 extended its current winning streak to six games, and three consecutive shutouts. And the three points claimed in Pennsylvania edged the II team closer to what seems an inevitable USL regular season title.
The Red Bulls reserves now have 59 points from league play, with a possible maximum of 71 if they win all their remaining games. The only team that can catch them in either Conference is Louisville City (53 points from 27 games; max points total of 62). NYRB II is now guaranteed a top-two finish in both the USL East and the league overall, and is the clear favorite to clinch the regular season title.
And what is perhaps most impressive about the team's seemingly unstoppable current momentum is that is getting weaker on paper. Consider the starting lineup for this game:
Rafa Diaz is the back-up 'keeper to regular starter and captain Ryan Meara. Kevin O'Toole is an Academy player who would not be expected to start at left back if Justin Bilyeu (on first-team bench duty this weekend) or Noah Powder (the most pro-ready prospect in the Academy ranks this year, by some estimations) were available. David Najem is getting time at right back mostly because the preferred starter - Konrad Plewa - suffered a stroke. And the hottest attacking player in the II-team's ranks right now, Junior Flemmings, appears to be injured.
But this year at least, the back-up Bulls have depth at every position. Malian youth international Zoumana Simpara can hardly get off the bench, for example.
Still, the match-up with Bethlehem Steel looked potentially challenging, despite the disparity in form between the two teams. When it was announced the Steel would be welcoming Maurice Edu for a rehab start for this game, it seemed as though the home team might have an edge. NYRB II's luck has to run out at some point.
But it didn't against Bethlehem. The first half was a choppy, stop-start affair with neither team really making much of its chances. The scrappiness favored the Red Bulls, whose RalfBalling style thrives on chaos. Also favoring the Red Bulls: the referee's decision to award a penalty for foul in the box at a corner.
Aaron Long took a shove to the back from Bolu Akinyode, and the referee pointed to the spot. It wasn't much more than standard set-piece jostling, but it was a foul. Many refs would have left it alone, but this one didn't.
The first-team Red Bulls don't seem to get many penalty calls, but NYRB II has been getting several recently. This was the team's fourth penalty in its last four games, and the third consecutive goal it scored from the spot. Brandon Allen bagged his 13th goal of the season with a confident finish.
It was a different game in the second half. The Steel subbed in Justin McMaster and he brought pace and endeavor to the attack. The Red Bulls back line repeatedly struggled to cope with him, and his runs freed space for Eric Ayuk to get more involved in the game. But the renewed vigor in the Steel's attack highlighted how well Rafa Diaz controls the space in front his goal.
The NYRB II 'keeper repeatedly shut down dangerous situations with well-timed forays off his line to collect passes out of reach of his defense.
Flemmings' replacement in the lineup, Vincent Bezecourt, had the II-team's best chance to kill the game in the second half. He was played in on goal by Florian Valot, but let Steel 'keeper Matt Perrella see a little too much of the ball. In the context of match McMaster was threatening to turn Bethlehem's way, it was an unfortunate missed opportunity.
But NYRB II did not give up the goal that seemed likely for most of the second half. And Derrick Etienne seized on a through ball in injury time - timing his run and shot perfectly - to put the game out of Bethlehem's reach.
Throw in the fact the reserve Red Bulls welcomed Konrad Plewa back to the field in this game (he was subbed in midway through the second half), and this was yet another satisfying outing for the II team.
Coach John Wolyniec has guided a constantly-rotating squad to the brink of NYRB II's first-ever trophy. The USL regular season title could be clinched this week: NYRB II is in action again on Wednesday. And after that the only question will be what players Woly has available for the playoffs.