This Saturday’s Eastern Conference Semifinal in the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs between the No. 3-seed Tampa Bay Rowdies and No. 7-seed New York Red Bulls II looks set to provide plenty of entertainment at both ends of the field, with a combined 11 goals being scored in their first two meetings this season, which saw either team take a victory on home turf.
With both teams having hit the 50-goal plateau in the regular season, and impressive shutout victories this past Saturday to open the postseason, plenty of chances should be expected at Al Lang Stadium. Here are three things to watch for this weekend.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies have all the ingredients that make for a tough team to defend from set pieces. They have players who can deliver a good ball into the penalty area, thanks to the likes of Marcel Schäfer, and they have size and players willing to attack the ball in the penalty area in center backs Neill Collins and Hunter Gorskie, as well as forwards Martin Paterson and Georgi Hristov.
It should come as little surprise, therefore, that Collins led the USL with 25 headed shots this season or that Hristov led the league with three goals from corner kicks. Even in their 4-2 defeat to the Red Bulls II on Sept. 2 at MSU Soccer Park, the Rowdies’ two goals both came from set pieces, highlighting a key area for Saturday’s clash as Paterson and Gorskie found the net.
The Red Bulls II tried to combat this in the second meeting between the teams by using 6-foot-6 center back Tim Schmoll in their back line, and that, in part, helped New York limit Tampa Bay’s chances from six corner kicks, as Schmoll finished the night with nine clearances, eight of which came from within his own penalty area. Whether it’s Schmoll, or last week’s center back pairing of Hassan Ndam and Jordan Scarlett, the Red Bulls II will want to limit the number of chances they offer their hosts off dead ball situations.
After missing half the season through injury, you could make a very good case that had he played the full year for the New York Red Bulls II attack, Stefano Bonomo would have been among the leading contenders for this year’s USL Golden Boot alongside the likes of Dane Kelly, Chandler Hoffman and Enzo Martinez. Bonomo’s scoring rate of 98.3 minutes per goal is an astounding figure, with his high-level performance continuing this past weekend with the opening goal in the Red Bulls II’s victory against the Charleston Battery.
Bonomo doesn’t have great ball retention numbers, he’s completed only 60 percent of his passes overall this season and only 53.7 percent in the opposing half. That can be attributed to a number of factors, among them a willingness to try to find a pass that might not be on, but could provide a major dividend if it comes off. In addition to his goals this season, Bonomo has created 17 scoring chances in 14 appearances, a good rate for someone whose primary goal is to find the back of the net.
While the likes of Florian Valot and Arun Basuljevic will probably be providing much of the service, with Junior Flemmings a potential counterattack threat on the right side, there will be other options for New York to get the goals it needs. If Bonomo gets some good looks, though, there’s a good chance he’ll take advantage.
Maybe the key moment when the Rowdies and Red Bulls II last met at Al Lang Stadium on Oct. 4 came just after New York had taken the lead in the 16th minute. The visitors were looking to consolidate their position, while trying to hold possession in midfield when an errant pass near the halfway line swing momentum the other way. One quick break forward by Marcel Schafer and a fine low finish by Joe Cole later and the Rowdies were level.
That sort of midfield pressure which can lead to a scoring opportunity could be big for both teams on Saturday night, especially for a Red Bulls II side that can press very effectively. New York finished in the top five in the USL with more than 2,000 possession recoveries this season, and they also finished seventh in interceptions with more than 500. That type of pressure saw the Red Bulls II recover possession 17 times in the Rowdies’ half the last time they played each other, one of which led to the opening goal of the game.
The Rowdies have been one of the more accurate passing sides in the USL this season and could break down the Red Bulls II’s pressing style if they can maintain their sharpness. If New York can break up Tampa Bay’s efforts to build through the midfield, there could be some joy for them on the quick counterattack soon after.