John Wolyniec must be experiencing some heavy déjà vu. For the third straight season, the New York Red Bulls II take on Louisville City FC for the right to a spot in the USL Cup Finals. We look at that and more in this week’s notebook.
NYRBII Notebook: Louisville AGAIN, Yanes adjusting, and more
“It’s interesting, fast forward a year and we’re kind of back in the same place,” said Wolyniec this week. “We feel really good, obviously two really good results for us in the playoffs. Never easy to win on the road, but our guys [played] in a good way, we finished of the season really well. We continued to play in a good way, and the biggest thing for me is just how our guys have been confident and continued to do what they do even under stressful situations, so we feel really good at the time.”
Each of the last two seasons, the Eastern Conference final has come down to two teams, NYRBII and LCFC. In 2016, NYRBII triumphed after winning the penalty kick shootout. Last year, LCFC flipped the script and walked away with a penalty kick victory of their own. The similarities don’t end there.
NYRBII struggled through the summer, finding results on the road difficult. Unattainable. But that all changed on their final road trip of the 2018 season, defeating North Carolina FC and Penn FC in consecutive matches. After the first to playoff rounds, NYRBII are now a perfect 4-0-0 on the road, knocking off number one seed FC Cincinnati in the process.
The strong finish to the season meant an extended playoff run and an inevitable clash with LCFC.
“Yeah it’s a bit odd, with a lot of teams and a lot of good teams out there that it would end this way, but you have to give credit to them,” mused Wolyniec. “They’ve been a great franchise since they started, and they’ve always been well-coached. They always have good players, they’ve had players in and out and still replaced with guys that continue to have success. And then obviously it’s a big credit to us that we can continue the run.”
Earlier this season, NYRBII and LCFC produced high scoring affairs that, at times, seemed a bit out of hand. Wolyniec thinks that will not be the case Friday night, as NYRBII have improved dramatically since their last meeting. Still, the big game’s increased pressure is an important learning opportunity for the young team.
“We’d certainly rather avoid [a high scoring match],” said Wolyniec. “But whatever, whatever the game presents itself we’ll be ready for and hopefully our guys just continue to react to what the game presents and continue to come up with good answers, and we’ve done that so far in really stressful situations. [I’m] certainly really proud of the way we’ve responded to hard games and hope that it continues.
Ben Mines and a chance at revenge
Back on August 31st, the New York Red Bulls announced that Ben Mines had to undergo surgery to repair a broken clavicle, which meant he would not return to the pitch this season. Well, thanks to an extended playoff run by NYRBII, Mines is ready to return to the pitch.
Mines returning to face LCFC, carries added significance.
Last season, NYRBII lost their penalty kick shootout to LCFC in the conference final. Mines failed to score, and NYRBII failed to move on. The young forward used that miss as motivation this season, and showed continued growth throughout the season.
Now he has a chance to right last seasons wrongs, though hopefully NYRBII can avoid going to penalties for a third straight season.
Another cup final at Red Bull Arena?
Could the USL Cup Final return to Red Bull Arena next week?
While it would take a confluence of events to see it happen, the Red Bulls are in position to potentially host the Final. Western Conference winners Orange County SC is unable to secure a venue for November 8th. Should they advance over Phoenix Rising FC, the Eastern Conference Champion will host the final.
In order to secure the match at home, the NYRBII must first get passed LCFC. It might be a long shot, but if NYRBII can overcome their perennial conference final rivals, they could be on their way to securing a crucial cup final at home.
One player quietly flying under the radar for NYRBII is Allen Yanes.
After Noah Powder’s departure this offseason, the left back spot remained unsettled for much of the season. Lucas Stauffer and Nico de Vera each battled to be the starter earlier in the season, but neither player could lock down the position. Then came Yanes.
The Guatemalan international helped steady NYRBII’s defense during their miraculous turnaround in September and October. NYRBII have not conceded a goal during their strong playoff run and have not conceded more than a single goal in a match since September 13th.
Despite joining NYRBII on July 11th, it took Yanes a while to settle into the Red Bull system. Now, he is flourishing.
“Yea, overall I feel good being with the club and the last couple of games in the regular season,” said Yanes. “I have felt more comfortable with what they are trying to do out on the field and to win at a team like Cincinnati at their place, it feels good to come out with that victory because we needed it to advance because we have a goal to win it all.”
Yanes is a triple threat, able to play on either side of the back line and could even chip in as an emergency centerback should the need arise.
“I have always felt comfortable playing on both sides,” said Yanes. “I have never had any issues with that and it is good to be interchangeable like that. Overall it is just a comfort level that I do whatever it takes for the team do what it takes to win, and wherever the team plays me, I’ll play.”
Whatever it takes. The phrase should become the mantra of NYRBII as they continue to show their ability to rise to the occasion, especially in the playoffs.
Defense finding legs
As mentioned above, the NYRBII defense is largely responsible for their current playoff run. Through two playoff matches, NYRBII are yet to concede a goal. Rookie Kevin Politz and Hassan Ndam formed a strong partnership, and NYRBII are reaping the rewards.
“Chris says it a lot with the first team is that defense wins championship,” said Politz this week. “We knew towards the end of the season that if we wanted to make a good run at this, then we had to play defensively as a collective unit. Especially Cincinnati we did a really good job of shutting them down and limiting them to a couple of chances on the video, but we did a really good job playing together, shifting well, and doing all the little things that lead to shutouts eventually.”
Through the first two rounds of the USL Playoffs, NYRBII conceded seven shots on target. In order to reach their second USL Cup Final, they need to continue that trend against a strong LCFC side. For Politz and the rest of the backline, continuing to rise to the challenge is the key.
“Just keep doing the things that we have been doing,” said Politz. “All of the small things that add up and throw-in’s for example. Just being lock down with communication. I think that is something that has contributed to our improvement on defense, is just constant communication, everyone is on the same page, so if we keep doing the things we have been doing well, I think we will have some success.”
A young team is likely to experience growing pains, especially when it comes to communication. It takes the right combination of players to make it work. Ethan Kutler, Allen Yanes, Hassan Ndam, and Politz are all operating on the same page these days.
NYRBII’s earlier difficulties gave way to a stronger squad that can now face adversity and triumph.