It was a day of firsts at Montclair State University's Soccer Park: the stadium's first game as New York Red Bulls II's home field; the first game NYRB II played under the banners marking the team's 2016 USL regular-season and Cup titles; Zeiko Lewis' first goal as a professional player; Evan Louro's first clean sheet as a pro; NYRB II's first win of the 2017 season (and first win at MSU Soccer Park).
There was much to celebrate after Lewis found the net in the 69th minute by tidying up the chaos wreaked in the box when 6' 4" Hassan Ndam decided to essay a bicycle kick at Richmond Kickers' goal.
The game played out in a fashion familiar to RBNY fans: Richmond sat back for long periods, stayed compact at the back and challenged the II team to break down a solid defense. Possession was plentiful for NYRB II, but clear-cut chances were harder to come by. At half-time, the stat sheet painted a picture of the home team in near-total control.
Junior Flemmings had the best chances of the game before the goal was scored. In the 11th minute, a well-executed set piece gifted him a header in front of goal, but he put the opportunity wide.
Shortly after half-time, Flemmings did a lot better with a through ball that left him with some work to do to get by Richmond 'keeper Matt Turner - but, sadly, he was judged offside.
Flemmings still looks at his best when running with the ball in wide areas, but he can certainly play up front and extended time at the position will surely only yield more and better scoring opportunities. He is also still working his way back to full fitness after a long, injury-enforced stint on the sidelines.
Lewis scored after Flemmings had been subbed out for livewire striker Ben Mines. The 17-year-old Academy prospect won a penalty last week in Pittsburgh for the simple reason that he is quick and confident with the ball at his feet. He had a similar influence on the score this week. Shortly after joining the game, a quick clearance by Justin Bilyeu fell to Mines who streaked into the final third, drove toward the box and bounced a cross off a Richmond defender to win a corner. Lewis' goal came from that corner.
NYRB II held on for the 1-0 win.
The clean sheet will give confidence to a defense that it is still far from perfect. The Red Bulls' RalfBall system can be relied upon to give up counter-attacking opportunities during any 90-minute stretch, and this one was no different from most. But there were times when decision-making or execution was poor along the back line and scoring opportunities were offered to Richmond for no better reason than NYRB II let them happen.
Still, it is is a lot easier for a team to work out its kinks when its work has been rewarded with points. Last year's USL champion has collected its first win of the new season, and now looks ahead to a trip to its old home field. NYRB II will play Harrisburg City Islanders on April 5 at Red Bull Arena.
Three thoughts inspired by NYRB II's first win of USL 2017:
1. Justin Bilyeu is a pretty good center-back
One modest surprise in the NYRB II starting lineup was the presence of Justin Bilyeu (since he is a pretty regular part of the first team's match-day squads) and the fact that presence was at center-back, not his usual left-back spot. Tim Schmoll was on the bench with another CB-capable player, David Abidor - signaling the decision to play Bilyeu at CB was not out of necessity, but a concerted effort to get the player more experience at the position.
Bilyeu played the full 90 minutes and was effective - indeed, he was the official USL recap's man of the match.
We shall see how much time he gets at CB this season, but clearly the Red Bulls are interested in Bilyeu as a more versatile defender than perhaps was previously imagined. Thought he has played in the center of defense before, it has generally looked to be an in-a-pinch decision, more a distraction from his development as a full back than a serious commitment to proving himself as a pro-caliber CB. Perhaps that has changed.
2. Arun Basuljevic is here to entertain us
Last week, Basuljevic introduced himself to Red Bulls fans with a neat assist.
This week, he tried to go one better and score a goal-of-the-season candidate in his first home game.
It didn't pan out, but the early signs from Basuljevic are that his instincts and abilities have the potential to be very entertaining indeed. He is tasked with doing the d-mid dirty work for NYRB II, but he will get into the final third on occasion, and he is already hard not to notice when invited to join the attack.
3. NYRB II is still having a little trouble finding a full squad
Last week, the II team could only find 14 players to dress for its season-opener. This week, it found 16 to suit up for its home opener. Better - but still not a full match-day squad.
RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch is thinking about throwing a lot of first-teamers into the II team's next game. Maybe that assistance from the MLS squad will finally allow NYRB II to assemble 18 players for match-day in 2017.