For the second year in a row, New York Red Bulls II edged the Charleston Battery in the USL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. After not winning in 15 attempts on the road, NYRBII have now won their third straight road game and are marching into the Conference semis. Once again it was Tom Barlow, the thorn in the Battery’s side, whose goal in the 21st minute proved to be the difference.
NYRBIIs defense clicking at the right time
While timely attacking contributions came all season long, the resurrection of the team’s defense has been the catalyst of recent success.
The last time these two teams met up on August 25th, NYRBII scraped their way back to a miraculous 4-4 come from behind tie on the back of a masked Tom Barlow. Despite the late heroics, it was a game to forget for John Wolyniec and his backline. The Battery’s Ataullah Guerra and Patrick Okonkwo tore NYRBII’s defense to shreds.
The effects of that poor defensive showing were compounded by an even more tragic performance just two weeks earlier at home against Louisville City. While the scoreline of 6-4 may have given the impression of a loss in a shootout, it really wasn’t close. Repeated self-inflicted defensive lapses was a recurring theme over 90 minutes.
Post-game, Hassan Ndam came out to answer questions in front of the small media crowd and was very disappointed in the defense’s performance “The back four, who I just talked to – my teammates and my coach talked – we were not good enough. Nothing was great, we didn’t play like a Red Bull team. We have to put our head down moving forward and get ready for the playoffs. That wasn’t good enough.”
NYRBII limped through the month of August and simply maintained through September. In hindsight, Ndam’s reference to the playoffs were premature because there were doubts to whether this team could even make playoffs.
Yet, everything changed when NYRBII traveled to take on Nashville SC as the road drought amplified and playoff chances waned. Jose Aguinaga saw red in the 24th minute, and on the ensuing free kick NYRBII conceded to lose their one goal advantage.
In a moment that could have easily put a damper on their playoff hopes, the NYRBII backline flipped a switch. NYRBII pressed even harder while Hassan Ndam and Kevin Politz played one of their best games of the season. It was as though the back four needed a game like this to wake up from their sloppy performances. Building off that draw, NYRBII went on to North Carolina and got their first road win, further fueling their late season push for playoffs.
Playoffs: A whole new season
From goals conceded alone, NYRBII were convincingly the worst defense to qualify for the USL playoffs. It was a completely different story on the other side of the ball, scoring 71 goals. It’s hard to not imagine the team’s regular season success had their backline kept pace with their offense. Ironically though, the backline’s recent play will be the key deciding factor for any postseason accomplishments this fall.
Center back Hassan Ndam has been much more poised and disciplined seemingly ever since the Nashville game. He’s not lunging into tackles in precarious areas and his tackling is continually setting the tone for the rest of the XI. Kevin Politz’s positioning has vastly improved and he’s forging a blossoming chemistry alongside Ndam. Also, the acquisition of Allen Yanes has helped solidify a left back position which lacked consistency all season. Goalkeeper Evan Louro came up huge against Charleston and will need to repeat that performance again versus #1 seed, FC Cincinnati.
After this 1-0 shutout over Charleston, none of the regular season struggles matter now. It’s all in the rear view mirror as they are just one more solid defensive performance away from reaching the Conference finals for the third year in a row. For the first time in months, NYRBII is beginning to “play like a Red Bull team”.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography