New York Red Bulls II and Bethlehem Steel are separated by just two points in the USL Eastern Conference table at the moment - though the Steel has a game in hand. Both teams are part of a group of seven - stretching from fifth-placed Rochester Rhinos to 11th Pittsburgh Riverhounds - that are tightly clustered in mid-table. None of these teams have been consistently good or consistently bad, which is why they aren't part of the top three threatening to break away from the rest of the Conference, or the bottom four which looks in danger of being cut out of the race for playoff places.
But there are plenty of games still to play in USL 2017 and all of the mid-table teams in the East harbor dreams of a run of good results that might facilitate a charge up the standings and preferential seeding for the playoffs.
In Bethlehem Steel's case, that season-defining run might be happening right now. The team is unbeaten in its last six games - a run which includes a 2-0 win over NYRB II at MSU Soccer Park on June 16. That victory owed a lot to Adam Najem, who scored the Steel's first goal and assisted on the second. Najem is a former RBNY Academy player, but the Red Bulls were not able to persuade him to turn pro with them and he slipped away to the Philadelphia Union.
Loaned down to the Steel to ensure he gets regular minutes, Najem currently has one goal and three assists from 11 appearances. He has already shown that playing against his old club can bring out the best in him. Perhaps he will show that again in this match.
For NYRB II, this game comes at a slightly awkward time. The team relies heavily on players loaned down to it from the Red Bulls' MLS squad, but the MLS squad is currently stretched very thin. Injuries and international call-ups meant that RBNY was down to just 19 available first-teamers for its last league match.
Injury to any first-team player at the present moment will start to jeopardize the Red Bulls' ability to find 18 players for their next game - against New England Revolution in US Open Cup. Further, there is the persistent rumor that Brandon Allen - the II team's all-time top-scorer and leading scorer this season - is about to be loaned out to Minnesota United for the rest of the year.
Traditionally, a player who is about to transfer to another team is protected from potential injury by being held out of competitive play. If RBNY intends to loan out Allen, it doesn't have a lot to gain by including him in the match against the Steel: at best, he scores again and re-validates Minnesota's decision to give him a shot; at worst, he plays badly, gets injured, and the deal falls apart at the last moment.
All of which is to say that the lineup for this game could be a little less familiar than usual for the II team. RBNY has to keep one eye on US Open Cup, and the other eye on what it plans to do when the MLS summer transfer window opens on July 10.
Not for the first time in his tenure as NYRB II head coach, John Wolyniec might find his selection options heavily constrained by the needs and priorities of the first team. The Steel - effectively the reserve team of the Philadelphia Union - plays under similar constraints, but the Union doesn't have USOC to worry about next week.