The New York Red Bulls II are coming back to play after an extended suspension.
Leagues across the county that shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic are slowly beginning to re-open, including the second-division USL Championship which RBNY II compete within.

The team had played one game in early March, a 0-1 loss at home to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, before the league suspended play. Now, the Championship has announced the “Return to Play” format which uses regional groups, similar to divisions, to break up the larger Eastern and Western Conferences, limit travel, and help set up a 16-week regular season.

Eight groups, ranging from A to H, were announced in the format with the Bulls being drawn into Group F alongside Hartford Athletic, Philadelphia Union II (formerly Bethlehem Steel FC), Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, and Loudoun United FC. Including the previous result against Tampa, the team will play 15 more games between these teams. The two top finishers will qualify for the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs.

It has not been officially announced if the team will continue to play its home games at MSU Soccer Park, on the campus of Montclair State University, or if another venue will be put to use. Other possibilities include the New York Red Bulls Training Facility in Whippany, New Jersey, or Red Bull Arena itself in Harrison which the team has previously called home.

Head coach and former RBNY MLS star John Wolyniec, entering his sixth season leading the team, told the media that while he and the team are excited, they all realize a lot is at stake and precautions need to be taken for both safeties and to make a fair competition.

“I think first and foremost, we are just happy to play games,” Wolyniec said earlier this week prior to the league’s announcement of group placement. “When you have a bunch of young professionals, you got to prove what they can do. We are just happy we are going to get some games in and I think the league’s going to do the best they can to make sure that they put the players in a safe scenario, but also a scenario in what they are used to as far as being competitive and looking to get better. 

“Obviously, it’s been a tough year, but I think when we start playing games things will start to feel back to what we are used to do as players and coaches. We are going to make the most of every game possible and we will do everything we can to make them feel as real as possible. Hopefully, I am doing enough to prepare them in a relatively short time frame to be able to give their best in these games.”

Midfielder Kyle Zajec spoke to the media following the team’s first day of full-sided training earlier this week. Heading into his sophomore season as a fully professional, he noted the squad’s eagerness to get back on the field.

“We are very excited to get the season back up and running,” Zajec said. “There was a lot of uncertainty about the season, so we’re glad we finally know when we’ll be able to start playing.

“It’s been great to be able to see my teammates again,” he continued. “The transition from quarantine workouts to being back at the facility brought new energy and motivation to the group.”

Kyle Zajec celebrates with his teammates after scoring one of his two goals against Bethlehem Steel FC on May 31, 2019 at MSU Soccer Park (Photo: New York Red Bulls)

Last season, RBNY II started the year as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Between May 31 and September 13, the team went 11-3-3 and it looked as though the side would be battling for a top seed in the postseason. The early and mid-summer showed a team that was normally stacked at holding back opposing offenses, pressed heavily on offense, and had the ability to both dominate other teams and score in a pinch when needed. The kind of team that was able to earn points from any game.

Following this streak though, Red Bulls II began to falter. Offensive players such as Mathias Jørgensen and Sean Nealis began to play more with the first team as it tried to clinch an MLS playoff spot following a disastrous start to the season. The defense began to slip and the team went winless in its final six games (0-1-5), being outscored 8-19, in mostly road games where it struggled heavily. In the end, the great stretch in the late summer was done by beating eight teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

Six of those teams were separated from the final postseason spot by three wins or more. In the team’s first playoff game as a six-seed, the Bulls fell to #3 Indy Eleven, 1-0, on the road.

It was Indy’s first postseason win since joining the USL one year prior and first overall since its 2016 run in the North American Soccer League.

Going by last season’s results, the return to playgroup is an even split of good and bad. Of the eight games played between the four teams, New York sits at .500 with four wins and losses each. However, there was little parity in the results.

The Red Bulls swept Hartford in the latter’s debut season, which included a 10 game winless streak to start the team off. New York was loss number seven in-a-row during that span, beating the team 4-0 on April 17. Another 5-1 win on the road in August sealed the season sweep as Athletic finished the year second to last in the Conference.

Faring only marginally better, Union II, then playing under its previous name Bethlehem Steel FC, was also swept by New York last season but did nearly draw a point. In the team’s second game on July 10, played in Chester, PA, the Bulls only escaped with three points after Jared Stroud scored an 88th-minute decider following a run and cross by current RBNY first-team striker Tom Barlow. New York left with a 4-3 win and won the season series with a total scoreline of 8-3.

The other two teams in the group were a very different picture. Both Pittsburgh and Loudoun swept the Baby Bulls in 2019 with decisive wins in both encounters. Loudoun, the DC United reserve side playing its first league season, came into MSU Park in late April. Despite Jørgenson getting the home team up early, two goals in the next 18 minutes set the pace and New York lost its first game of the season, 3-1. The second game on the road came at the end of the team’s late-season collapse and saw the Bulls entered the playoffs off a 7-3 loss. Pittsburgh played the team closer but still won both games, including one of New York’s three losses during the great summer stretch.

Prior to knowing who Bulls II would be grouped with Zajec explained that he and the team don’t want to be overly affected by the new league structure.

“Our goals won’t change even with a new league structure in place,” Zajec said. “In fact, I’d say one of our goals is to not let the new league structure impact us. We’ll strive to finish in the top spot in our division and as always, our goal is to lift a trophy at the end of the season. We all want to make the most of this opportunity.”

2019 Records vs Group F Teams

  • Hartford: 2-0-0 (9-1)
  • Pittsburgh: 0-0-2 (1-5)
  • Philly II: 2-0-0 (8-3)
  • Loudon: 0-0-2 (4-10)

The USL Championship is set to resume games on July 11 and follow with a 13-week regular season.
Playoffs are set to begin in early October with a 16-team bracket, including eight sides from the Eastern and Western Conferences respectively.

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