At a loose end on Saturday, April 1? Head on over to Montclair State University for a triply historic New York Red Bulls II game. First, it is the team's 2017 home-opener. Second, it is the team's inaugural game at its new home, the aforementioned Montclair State University. Third, it is the team's first home game of its first-ever season as defending USL Cup (and Shield) champion.
For now, and we assume ever more (or as long as NYRB II exists), NYRB II will have a star above its crest to commemorate the 2016 USL Cup victory (the record-setting regular-season title will need to simply be kept alive in your memory without assistance from the team's graphics department).
The II team's opponent for this auspicious game will be Richmond Kickers. The Red Bulls' reserve team has only existed in USL for two seasons (this is its third) and it is perhaps a stretch to describe it as having any true rivals - though there may be something worthwhile brewing with Rochester Rhinos - but Richmond has the distinction of being the USL affiliate of D.C. United. So the Kickers offer a proxy rivalry, if nothing else.
In their season and home opener, the Kickers beat Harrisburg City Islanders, 1-0, thanks to a goal from Conor Shanosky.
Shanosky was a DCU Homegrown player, who played several games for Richmond in 2013 and 2014. He joined USL's Louisville City FC in 2015, but bounced back to Richmond toward the end of the 2016 season. Among the current DCU players made available to the Kickers for the 2017 season is Eric Klenofsky - the former Monmouth University and NYRB U-23s goalkeeper was drafted by DCU this year, to Once A Metro's lasting distress.
Richmond holds the advantage in the all-time series with NYRB II, claiming a 3-1-1 record from the five games played to date between the two teams, including a win and a draw last season.
While the Kickers got their 2017 off to a perfect start, NYRB II had to make do with three goals but only one point. The II team was in Pittsburgh last week for its season-opener, and played out an entertaining 3-3 draw with the Riverhounds.
The result seemed to validate pre-season expectations: the II team looks well-served in attack, but the back line seems like it will need some time to gel even before it is possible to say whether it will be a successful unit this year.
Every year appears to bring an almost brand new roster to the Red Bulls reserve team, and 2017 is no different. The opening-day starting lineup in Pittsburgh contained five players who weren't with NYRB II at all in 2016 (Ethan Kutler, Hassan Ndam, David Abidor, Andrew Tinari, and Arun Basuljevic), and arguably only three who could be described as first-choice starters from last year's roster (Vincent Bezecourt, Florian Valot, and Junior Flemmings).
Those three represent NYRB II's most consistent scoring threats (until or unless Brandon Allen is returned to the II team squad). The "French Connection" - Bezecourt and Valot - are sort of lower league 'tweeners: they look a cut above most of USL, but don't quite seem MLS-ready. This is their season to make hay with the II team and force themselves into RBNY's thinking for 2018. They're off to a good start: Bezecourt bagged a brace and Valot scored once against Pittsburgh. Rookie RBNY Homegrown midfielder Basuljevic introduced himself to fans with an inventive assist.
Junior Flemmings might be asked to play as more of a central forward this season after spending most of 2016 on the wing. We only have one game from which to judge, but the Jamaican was asked to be more of a striker against the Riverhounds. He is only recently back from the injury that cut his 2016 season short, and has a point to prove: the 21-year-old looked set to at least be considered by the first team for this year's squad, but wasn't fit in time to participate in the MLS preseason.
Richmond tested NYRB II last season and should be no less a challenge this year. The II team's new home crowd might be in for a similar scoring spree to that witnessed last week in Pittsburgh. The Red Bulls reserves will be positive and likely effective in attack, but the defense looked suspect against the Riverhounds and is only a week older - Richmond's forwards will be pleased to have been handed an early look at a work-in-progress back line.
Lastly, there will be eyes on NYRB II's attendance at Montclair State. The team used Red Bull Arena as its home ground for its first two seasons, and crowds were famously thin. It is hoped MSU will at least provide a livelier atmosphere for a modest crowd, and perhaps will even generate a more robust following for the II team. The Richmond game is the first test of that hypothesis.
It is a little foolhardy to attempt to predict NYRB II lineups at the best of times. The team is frequently used for impromptu appearances by out-of-favor first-teamers, or up-and-coming Academy kids. And absences from the roster are common and often unexplained. Case in point: on opening day, NYRB II could only find 14 players to send to Pittsburgh. If USL was embarrassed that its reigning champion couldn't field a full match-day squad, it kept that to itself - the league is well-used to NYRB II's imperfect optics.
NYRB II: Rafa Diaz; Ethan Kutler, Tim Schmoll, Hassan Ndam, David Najem; Arun Basuljevic, Dan Metzger; Florian Valot, Vincent Bezecourt; Junior Flemmings, Brandon Allen
For the Kickers, this is last week's lineup with the exception of Klenofsky. Richmond started DCU back-up Travis Worra in goal last week, but he should be with the MLS squad this week. Here's hoping Klenofsky gets a run against the Red Bulls.
Richmond Kickers: Eric Klenofsky; Alex Lee, Braeden Troyer, Mallan Roberts, Conor Shanosky, Luiz Fernando Nascimento, Yudai Imura, Chris Durkin, Maxim Tissot, Fred Owusu Sekyere, Anthony Grant
Kick-off is at 4:00 pm, Eastern, on Saturday, April 1. The game will be streamed live on YouTube, and will also be covered by WMSC Radio. Tickets available here.