New York Red Bulls II will round out a three-game week in Missouri with a game against St. Louis FC. The II team beat Richmond Kickers in its April 1 home-opener at Montclair State University, then suffered its first defeat of the 2017 USL season - losing 1-0 to Harrisburg City Islanders at Red Bull Arena. The April 8 trip to St. Louis makes it three games in seven days for the II team, which has found goals hard to come by since its opening-day 3-3 draw in Pittsburgh.
It is, of course, early days in the season and the II team might be expected to take longer to settle into its stride than most, so up-and-down results might be with the side for a while yet. It has played three USL games on three different fields (Highmark Stadium, MSU Soccer Park, and Red Bull Arena) so far this year, and Toyota Stadium in St. Louis will make it four different venues in four games.
There has also been a lot of change on the field: one of the more eye-catching players of NYRB II's 2017 games to date, Zeiko Lewis, missed the season-opener in Pittsburgh; a few presumptive regulars (Ethan Kutler, Florian Valot, Evan Louro or Rafa Diaz - since first-team back-up keeper Ryan Meara started against Harrisburg) missed the last game; the team has yet to bring a full 18-man squad to any of its matches, making do with short benches in all three outings.
Change is a constant for NYRB II. Expect starting lineups to shuffle for almost every game, but at some point in the last two seasons the team has settled into a measure of consistency on the field - and, of course, last season that consistency was being consistently the best team in the league. The 2017 edition of the II team will likely play its entire season in the shadow of the extraordinary achievements of last year's roster.
The team will be meeting up with one of the more notable players from NYRB II's 2016: Konrad Plewa is a well-regarded defensive player (midfielder, center back, full back - take your pick) who suffered a stroke last season, but recovered to score the penalty that put the II team into the USL Cup final.
Released by NYRB II at the end of 2016, Plewa is a St. Louis man now. He started his new club's opening game of the season - against Louisville City - but did not feature in its home-opener, a 3-2 win over Ottawa Fury.
There is another former Red Bull on the St. Louis roster: it is easy to forget Jose Angulo was ever with RBNY because he played no minutes at all in any competitions during his single season with the club (in 2012). There was no II team at RBNY in Angulo's day, which might have made a difference to his prospects with the Red Bulls: the season after he left the club, he was the joint top-scorer in USL and the league's MVP. Angulo is a proven lower-league attacking force, producing regular goals for Pittsburgh RIverhounds in USL and Fort Lauderdale Strikers in NASL. In his first season with St. Louis FC, he has made one appearance to date and is yet to score.
St. Louis is off to a solid start to its campaign, picking up a scoreless draw in Louisville and three points at home against Ottawa. The squad includes former Houston Dynamo defender AJ Cochran and Christian Volesky, who was Rochester Rhinos' top scorer for the last two seasons. And it is coached by enigmatic American soccer legend Preki.
Scoring difficulties aside (and that is a big issue to ignore, admittedly), NYRB II has not started the season playing badly. Per the club's official match preview, the team leads USL in shots and completed passes in 2017 - a mark of attacking effort. If and when the team adds efficiency to its virtues, it should be a force in USL once again.
Presently, the team has looked a little labored, especially in the final third. But is just reaching the end of the second week of its season. There is time, and no shortage of games, to find fluency and chemistry up front.
Nothing is more predictable than an unpredictable II team lineup, but here's a best guess...
NYRB II: Evan Louro; David Najem, Justin Bilyeu, Hassan Ndam, Ethan Kutler; Arun Basuljevic, Dan Metzger; Zeiko Lewis, Vincent Bezecourt; Florian Valor, Junior Flemmings.
St. Louis FC - starting lineup for last game, against Ottawa Fury on April 1:
⚽️️ Starting tonight against @OttawaFuryFC #STLvOTT #afoofa pic.twitter.com/9qJMH5yHYU— Saint Louis FC (@SaintLouisFC) April 1, 2017