In the mood for some free soccer? You're in luck: the New York Red Bulls U-23s start their 2017 season in PDL on Saturday, May 20, at 7:00 pm at the Red Bulls Training Facility. Admission is free. All you have to do is turn up. Park at the Academy building parking lot.
Don't expect a crowd, but do expect to see some of RBNY's top college-based Homegrown prospects, summering with the U-23s to keep themselves progressing toward a career in pro soccer without damaging their NCAA eligibility.
This year's squad features (at least - players might well be added as the short PDL season progresses) 12 players who could win Homegrown contracts with RBNY in the not-too-distant future. Players like Marcello Borges - who is unfortunate not to be with the USMNT U-20s in Korea - and Christopher Lema, who might be the next man to step off the Academy-to-Georgetown production line into a first-team contract with RBNY.
Last year's U-23 squad included Arun Basuljevic, who is now a Homegrown Red Bull honing his skills in USL with NYRB II.
And the RBNY U-23 roster typically includes a number of well-regarded prospects from outside the Red Bulls youth system. This season's crop includes highly-rated 'keeper Benjamin Lundgaard and Rutgers-Newark freshman sensation Fabio De Sousa.
The team plays in the Mid Atlantic Division of the PDL's Eastern Conference. The nation-wide league divides 72 teams into 10 Divisions, grouped into four Conferences. Top teams enter a regionalized playoff competition that ultimately sends four Conference champions to a national final four.
New York Red Bulls U-23s have been playing in the national amateur summer-league system since 2010. From 2010 to 2014, the team was in NPSL, essentially an alternative to PDL: same idea, different brand, slightly different roster rules.
In NPSL, the U23s won their Division three times in five seasons; they were in the playoffs for four of those five seasons, and won the national championship in 2014.
In their first year in PDL - 2015 - the RBNY U-23s won their Division and made the national championship game in the playoffs, falling to K-W United FC. Last year, the team struggled, finishing fourth in its Division and missing out on the playoffs. But the U-23s are regarded as the senior team in RBNY's Academy system: the role of the squad is primarily developmental. As long as players are visibly progressing from Academy to college to pro contracts via the U-23s, then the team is doing its job. Obviously, being good in PDL helps the players to support their claim that are good enough to turn pro, so results have a role too - but they are not the primary measure of the team's success.
PDL scoops up many of the top college-based prospects in the country, with a variety of clubs providing a variety of models and approaches to the task of recruiting and developing that segment of the USA's pro-level soccer talent that chooses to filter itself through university.
Some teams, like RBNY's U-23s, are directly attached to pro clubs, offering training and coaching resources shared with - or at least adjacent to - fully professional players. There are players in the RBNY PDL squad for whom a summer with the U-23s is just another Academy season: same fields, familiar faces on the sidelines, tactical plans and roles steadily evolving from year to year.
Other clubs, like RBNY's first PDL opponent this year (Reading United, which draws heavily from the Philadelphia Union Academy player pool) are affiliated with pro clubs, functioning much like the Red Bulls U-23s but retaining some measure of autonomy.
More different still is the approach of the Ocean City Nor'easters: a fully independent club with no formal affiliations to any pro team. Ocean City scours the country for talent that has slipped the net of the pro-team Academies and big-club scouts. The Nor'easters model sees players turnover more quickly - a single season in Ocean City is par for the course - as the team offers a sort of course correction: a summer in the PDL limelight going toe-to-toe with more vaunted prospects can quickly channel a previously-overlooked player to bigger things. Ocean City's top-scorer in 2016 - Chevaughn Walsh - had a pro contract with Pittsburgh Riverhounds before the end of August.
So PDL is an opportunity to see how RBNY's next crop of Homegrowns and college recruits are developing, and to see how well they measure up against players working their way through the Academies of other clubs and off-the-radar talent scooped up by teams like the Nor'easters.
The quality of play is routinely validated by the performances of PDL teams in US Open Cup. RBNY's first opponent of the season - Reading United - just beat New York Cosmos in the Cup. The match-winner in the 3-2 victory was scored by Frantzdy Pierrot, who is on the fringes of the Haiti Men's National Team, and has scored three game-winning goals in his first three games for Reading this season (two in USOC, one in PDL).
RBNY is starting a little later than some teams, but it will catch up fast. The team plays three games - all at home - in the week of May 20-27. And you can watch them all, if you wish, for free at the Red Bulls Training Facility.