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NYRB II Preview: Rochester rivalry renewed - Red Bulls hit the road to take on Rhinos

The II team is headed north this week, to play a team that always seems to give them trouble.

Matthew Stith

The closest thing New York Red Bulls II has to a rivalry in USL is surely its annual tussles with Rochester Rhinos.

In 2015 - NYRB II's inaugural season - the Rhinos were uncommonly good. Rochester lost just once in the regular season that year. Against NYRB II, the Rhinos posted two wins and a scoreless draw in the regular season and bounced the II team from the playoffs, en route to a USL Double (regular season and USL Cup titles).

In 2016, it was the Red Bulls' turn to be uncommonly good. NYRB II stormed to its own USL Double, but didn't beat the Rhinos at all in the regular season: the teams played out three ties. In the playoffs, NYRB II avenged the post-season defeat of the year before - just: the match finished 3-3, with the II team needed a penalty in the last minute of extra time to save itself. The shootout went NYRB II's way, and the rest is USL history.

Some may note that NYRB II hasn't really beaten Rochester yet in its short existence: the playoff "win" was via the somewhat forced mechanism of penalty shootout because playoff games need a winner. Nonetheless, the Rhinos appear to be in the mood for revenge:

Rochester is off to a shaky start in 2017. The team opened its season with a win over Bethlehem Steel by the odd goal in five, followed by a scoreless draw with Toronto FC, and then took a 5-0 beating from Charleston Battery in its last outing. All three of those games were on the road, however. NYRB II will provide the opposition for the Rhinos' first home game of new USL campaign.

Rochester has held on to defender Joe Farrell - who won the 2014 NPSL championship with RBNY U-23s in 2014 - for 2017. And added Christiano Francois, who had a brief trial with NYRB II last season.

While the team has retained several key players, including Farrell, 'keeper Tomas Gomez, and play-maker Kenardo Forbes, it let two important attackers - Steevan Dos Santos and Christian Volesky - go during the off-season. The Rhinos have signed up a fresh crop of young attacking talent: Francois (23 years old; signed by D.C. United in 2014 but never played in MLS), Darius Madison (22; drafted but unsigned by Seattle Sounders in 2016), and Jalen Brown (22; drafted but unsigned by NYCFC in 2017).

Rochester head coach Bob Lilley doesn't really do bad seasons. He is one of the more successful coaches in lower-league North American soccer. In his second stint with Rochester, he has led the team to the playoffs for the last three seasons, and - of course - won the USL Double in 2015.

The home opener is an opportunity for Rochester to quickly forget last week's humiliation, and it will perhaps enjoy the extra motivation of facing the upstart II team that ended its defense of USL Cup last season.

NYRB II's back line has been shaky on the road in the early stages of this campaign. The Rhinos have scored just three goals in USL 2017 to date; the Red Bulls have conceded three goals in both their away games to date.

NYRB II head coach John Wolyniec is also wrestling with an injury crisis that has seen him forced to lean heavily on the Red Bull Academy for players to get his match-day squads even close to a full side. Even with that help, and several loans from the first team, the II team has yet to field an 18-man match-day squad this season.

It seems likely to be another shorthanded squad for the NYRB II in Rochester, since the game is being played on the same day as RBNY takes on Columbus Crew at Red Bull Arena. Brandon Allen played 45 minutes for the II team last week and was on the first team's bench the following day, but that sort of arrangement won't work with the USL and MLS squads more than 300 miles apart on April 22. Expect more than a few players to be loaned to NYRB II from the MLS squad, but anyone RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch even thinks he might want for his team's game against Columbus will have to stay close to Red Bull Arena.

The II team will want to show against Rochester that it can be more solid at the back, while hoping that midfielder Vincent Bezecourt's hot streak continues. He has scored four goals and chipped in two assists so far this season, and is NYRB II's most consistent attacking threat at the moment. Junior Flemmings got on the score sheet for the first time this season last week against Orlando City B; Zeiko Lewis has had an encouraging start to his pro career; unheralded Andrew Tinari has shown well in a more low-key, connecting role in the midfield. But Bezecourt is carrying the attack at the moment.

At the back, the team seems to have deliberately set itself a challenge. Rookie center-back Hassan Ndam looks better every week, and is an exciting prospect, but he is also 18 and very short on pro experience. He has been paired with Justin Bilyeu recently, who is better known as a left-back, but for whom the Red Bulls clearly have hopes of greater versatility. Amir Murillo has the opportunity to break into the first team this year - he's 21 but also already capped by his men's national team, Panama - but the right-back has played two games for NYRB II to date, costing his side a goal (and the match) in his debut and prematurely limping out of his second appearance. While Murillo settles in at right-back, David Najem has been asked to fill in at left-back (while Bilyeu - potentially an injury to Kemar Lawrence away from starting at left-back for the first team - gets time at CB).

It isn't always the case that everyone on NYRB II's back line is new to either the team or their position or both, it's just often that way. But a the II team is a development squad and such arrangements are what development squads are supposed to facilitate. We'll never know if Justin Bilyeu can be a pro-caliber center-back unless he gets a fair run at the position (and the last man the Red Bulls converted to CB, Aaron Long, was the USL Defender of the Year in 2016 and is an every-game starter for the first team now).

NYRB II's work-in-progress back line against Rochester's new-look attack will be perhaps the most interesting match-up in this match. And by the end of 90 minutes, we'll have another chapter to review of the II team's burgeoning rivalry with its neighbor to the north.

Predicted lineups

The most surprising thing about the II team's lineup will be if it is close to this prediction. Making the assumption here that 'keeper Diaz and forward Valot will be recovered from injury and rotated back into the lineup.

NYRB II: Rafa Diaz; David Najem, Justin Bilyeu, Hassan Ndam, Amir Murillo; Dan Metzger, Arun Basuljevic; Vincent Bezecourt, Zeiko Lewis; Junior Flemmings, Florian Valot

After getting roughed up in Charleston last week, a few changes to the Rochester lineup would not be unexpected or unwarranted, but here's who they went with last time out:

Rochester Rhinos (lineup against Charleston, April 15): Daniel Lynd; Bradley Kamdem Fewo, Joe Farrell, Sergio Cambell Todd Pratzner, Ryan James; Wal Fall, Mike Garzi; Kenardo Forbes, Rayane Boukemia, Christiano Francois

The game kicks off at 6:05 pm on Saturday, April 22, 2017. It will be streamed live on the USL YouTube channel.