Only slightly overshadowed by the fact it was played on the same day as the New York Red Bulls' season-opening CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Vancouver Whitecaps, RBNY also continued its preseason in Arizona with a friendly against Houston Dynamo.
The game was played in the context of Desert Diamond Cup, though the fact the 2-2 draw put Houston into the final of the competition was largely incidental. The Dynamo fielded an experienced and capable, but not necessarily full-strength, starting lineup.
RBNY has a II team squad in Arizona and put out a starting XI that featured at least four trialists (maybe more - Zeiko Lewis has a contract with MLS, but not yet with RBNY; we don't exactly know whether any of the current crop of Academy players in the squad are angling for pro deals).
The first half was a mismatch. Aside from trialist Bradley Nestor's opening scoring chance, the Red Bulls got little going up front, mostly because they had a difficult time getting hold of the ball. Houston's more experienced group made light work of the II-teamers, opening the scoring in the 35th minute through a counter-attack largely driven by Andrew Wenger and finished by Mauro Manotas.
Six minutes later, Houston's Jalil Anibaba headed in off a set piece. NYRB II's marking decisions - leaving compact forward Nestor to mark obvious target man Anibaba - were peculiar, and the Dynamo duly made the most of the opportunity.
Trialist Duane Muckette took a bang to the head while challenging for a ball in the air, and ultimately had to be substituted for Brett Nason in the 36th minute.
For the trialists on show in the first half, those on the back line - David Abidor and Lucas Batista - were at least busier and may have boosted their cause. But it was the second half group that made the strongest impression.
This group held its own more readily against the Houston lineup. Dynamo coach Wilmer Cabrera left his starters out for the second half, gradually introducing replacements from around the hour mark. Shortly after the first Houston substitutions were made, RBNY got itself on the board.
The goal was almost entirely of the work of Red Bulls Academy prospect Omir Fernandez, who timed his interception perfectly and kept his nerve as the Houston defense sought to recover.
Less than 10 minutes later, Fernandez had a part to play in RBNY's second goal.
The replay showed Houston 'keeper Tyler Deric tipped Fernandez's shot onto the post. Trialist Lucas Terci bagged the rebound.
Three thoughts inspired by the II team's fight back against the Dynamo in Arizona:
1. Keep an eye on the Academy kids
The familiarity of RBNY Academy players with the Red Bulls' current system might be a little overstated. As far as we know, the club's all-in commitment to Red Bull Global Soccer's RalfBall style and philosophy happened in 2015. It isn't entirely clear when the Academy hopped aboard the RalfBall train, but Ralf Rangnick only joined Red Bull Soccer in 2012: Academy products like Brandon Allen and Sean Davis were in college by the time Rangnick really started to make his mark on the RB soccer style.
So the idea that any Red Bull Academy graduate has grown up playing "the Red Bull way" and is almost naturally suited to the way the first team plays its soccer is probably a little exaggerated. Most of the Homegrown signings RBNY has made since 2015 are players who had left the Academy before RalfBall was the signature style of the club from the youth teams to the MLS roster.
But we do know RBNY committed to a top-to-bottom alignment of all its teams in 2015, with Jesse Marsch coaching the first team to play a style adopted at every level of the club from the youth teams through NYRB II.
The Red Bulls brought along four Academy prospects to the current camp: Omir Fernandez, Kazu Shigenobu, Zach Ryan, and Kevin O'Toole. There is no particular expectation that any of them will sign a pro contract this season, though each of them will likely get time with NYRB II this year, at least until college commitments intervene. But they are representative of an Academy class that is largely comprised of players who were in the RBNY system in 2015 - and therefore are perhaps the most RalfBall-experienced crop of potential Homegrown signings the Academy has produced to date.
O'Toole made a significant contribution to NYRB II last season. There were more fleeting appearances in USL from several others in his Academy class during 2016. In 2017, we might see more substantial contributions from the latest Academy cohort in NYRB II. Being good at soccer remains the best route to a pro soccer career, but being good at RalfBall is increasingly the best route to a contract with RBNY.
This year's Academy crop has had two full years of RalfBall to prove its ability in the system, and that familiarity with each other and experience of the club's preferred tactics should deliver increasingly confident young players to the II team.
In two years, NYRB II has enjoyed a steady flow of standouts from the Academy playing as teenage amateurs in USL: from Derrick Etienne to Noah Powder to the unheralded but remarkably steady O'Toole. We have yet to see a real class of Academy prospects step up and claim regular II-team minutes while still playing as amateurs, and there are a number of complicating factors that might prevent it from ever happening. But it becomes more likely as RBNY increasingly selects for proficiency with its particular style of play. And it's more likely to happen in 2017 than in either of the two preceding NYRB II seasons to date.
II-team head coach John Wolyniec singled out the Academy players in his squad for their performances against Houston. We'll see if that praise persists when the USL season gets started.
2. Really keep an eye on Omir Fernandez
There is not obvious successor to Bradley Wright-Phillips in the RBNY squad at the moment. There are potential successors to his productivity in front of goal - the Red Bulls surely hope Brandon Allen's high-volume scoring persists in his MLS career - but not anyone who obviously plays with the same strengths BWP brings to his game: intelligence mostly, which manifests as exceptional off-the-ball movement.
One half of a preseason game doesn't tell us a lot about a player, and Fernandez played a little USL last year without making an exceptional impact. But he is a little older, a little more physically developed, and he has a remarkable scoring rate in the Academy (33 goals in 35 games over the last two seasons).
His first goal in this game made Houston look silly, and only Tyler Deric stopped him from getting second (and even Deric couldn't stop Lucas Terci from knocking in the rebound).
Fernandez is young and likely heading to college this year. But in a year or two, the Red Bulls will have a vacancy for a mobile forward who likes to attack space on the back line - and they appear to have at least one of those in the pipeline.
3. This preseason is working out better for NYRB II than RBNY
Jesse Marsch has said he brought his team to Arizona for preseason to seek out MLS opponents to play in preparation for a season-opening CONCACAF Champions League fixture against Vancouver Whitecaps. Ultimately, the RBNY head coach got one game with his first-choice squad against a team from MLS before he had to send a squad out to play the Caps. If RBNY gets by Vancouver in CCL, even if RBNY wins CCL, it's hard to see the first team choosing to have another preseason like this one. It was...adequate, barely. One would expect any future CCL-focused preseason to have a different structure.
For NYRB II, however, picking up the first team's abandoned Desert Diamond Cup has been a useful exercise in testing the level of a variety of trialists and Academy prospects. Whatever the 2017 USL squad looks like, it will surely be stronger for the experience of three scrimmages with MLS teams approaching the end of their respective preseasons. The first, against Sporting KC, was perhaps humbling; the second was encouraging - one left to round it off.