New York Red Bulls II welcome Bethlehem Steel to MSU Soccer Park on Friday, June 16 in a match-up between two misfiring MLS reserve teams.
For the Red Bulls, USL 2017 is, so far, a long walk in the shadow of last year's all-conquering II team. A modest 5-6-2 record is currently good for fourth in the Eastern Conference, but that has a lot to do with NYRB II having a few more games than the like of Rochester Rhinos (tied on points - 17 - with the II team but with three games in hand) and Ottawa Fury (one point behind the II team with two games in hand). Indeed, Bethlehem Steel is only a point behind the Red Bulls, with a game in hand.
The primary difficulty for the II team has been generating any consistency at all in its results. In its last six games, for example, it followed a three-match losing streak - which suggested the team wasn't very good - with wins over top-of-the-East Charleston Battery and the struggling Richmond Kickers. And just when it appeared the Red Bulls had found some form, they were soundly beaten, 3-0, at home by Louisville City.
The team's biggest problem is its defense. As noted by uslsoccer.com, the II team had the best defense in the league in 2016, insofar as goals conceded is a measure of defensive solidity: 21 goals allowed in 30 regular-season games. In 13 games this season, the Red Bulls have already conceded 26 goals in USL.
A constantly-shuffled back line has been unable to deliver any consistency. At times, it appears the defense is quite solid; at times, it seems the back four is incapable of standing up to the relatively primitive challenge of a ball over the top, or the simple proposition of a determined runner. In any particular game when the defense has simply collapsed - and there have been a few recently - it is possible to identify one or two players who have been conspicuously poor for NYRB II at the back. But to blame an individual for the problem is to ignore the general pattern of frailty at the back: it doesn't much seem to matter who is playing for the II team this year - the defense is fragile some days, less so on others.
There is no suggestion right now that the II team won't be able to challenge for a playoff spot in USL. It has plenty of attacking weapons: Brandon Allen remains a scoring threat (he has seven goals from 11 appearances this season); Junior Flemmings (four goals in 12 appearances) and Vincent Bezecourt (five goals and six assists in 13 games) are also productive in front of goal; the team has other options - Zeiko Lewis, Douglas Martinez, and Florian Valot - whose attacking ability is not currently expressed in the heavier-weight offensive statistics.
But it's anyone's guess whether the II team that can outlast Charleston Battery shows up, or the one that got soundly beaten by Louisville is set for another run. Injuries have meant head coach John Wolyniec is rotating a relatively shallow squad: it's mostly the same players, just having radically different days.
Bethlehem Steel would appear to be having much the same sort of season. The Philadelphia Union's reserve team has a near-identical record to that of NYRB II: 5-6-1.
Our friends at Brotherly Game advise we should not expect Adam Najem to feature in this game, sadly eliminating the prospect of the RBNY Academy product playing against his brother, David.
The Steel is currently on a three-game unbeaten run, including a road win over Saint Louis FC last week. Top-scorer Seku Conneh (seven goals in 12 appearances) has found the net in each of those games. Like NYRB II, the Steel likes its squad to draw heavily from its parent club's Academy and from the fringes of the Philadelphia Union's roster (not mutually exclusive designations). Also like NYRB II, there are promising young players - like Conneh - recruited from outside the Union's Academy system. But the Steel also likes a veteran lynch-pin or two to keep a young squad in check: 30-year-old James Chambers fills that role on the current roster.
Both the Steel and NYRB II are development teams, first and foremost. They will continue to shuffle their squads to meet the shifting priorities of their respective player development programs. That doesn't always make results difficult to forecast - last year, the II team was reliably a lot better than the Steel - but it does this season. This game might not be close at all, but we'll have to wait until kick-off to find out whether either of these stuttering teams brought their best to the match.