New York Red Bulls II defender Hassan Ndam has been named to the USL 20 Under 20 each of the past two years, and will be a key figure for the visitors on Saturday night in Cincinnati. | Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
WHIPPANY, N.J. – The USL Cup Playoffs can tend to be unpredictable at times, but if there’s one thing fans have been able to count on in the past four editions of the postseason it’s that no matter where the team stands when it enters the playoffs, the New York Red Bulls II are going to be capable of finding a way to win.
Since joining the league, in fact, the Red Bulls II have come out on top in eight of their 10 postseason games all-time. Only Louisville City FC can match that total, with the last two teams to have lifted the USL Cup having also squared off in the Eastern Conference Final the past two seasons.
A third chapter to that saga could be on the cards this year, but to fulfill its part of the bargain No. 5-seed New York is going to have to pull off more road heroics when it visits No. 1-seed FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium on Saturday afternoon in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (4 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). Despite suffering two narrow losses to Cincinnati this season, the visitors believe things have fallen together nicely in their hopes of making another postseason run.
“Cincinnati has pretty much been the best team all year, top of the table for a long time,” said New York Head Coach John Wolyniec. “A tough place to play with the crowd, and they play well at home. We feel like we have finished this year in a good way, we’ve really made improvements and have come together in a good way, we have a bit of confidence. Beating the No. 1 seed is always tricky, I’m sure they are overwhelming favorites. We did a good job, especially last year, playing the underdog role, but they are difficult, they’ve got a lot of players to deal with, but we feel that we have come together at a good time and sometimes timing is everything.”
A big key to that turn in form for the Red Bulls II has been the club’s improvement defensively after being one of the leakiest in the league for much of the regular season. At times earlier in the regular season New York was needing its outstanding attack to simply outscore opponents, but in the past six games the Red Bulls II defense hasn’t allowed more than one goal, and has only conceded 27 shots on goal, an average of only 4.5 per game.
Given the weapons Cincinnati has at its disposal, the timing of that defensive improvement and the club’s first shutout since August 31 against the Charleston Battery in last week’s 1-0 win in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals couldn’t have arrived at a better moment for New York to put itself in with a chance of advancement.
The New York Red Bulls II and FC Cincinnati battled in a rainy contest when they last met at Nippert Stadium earlier this season. | Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
“We have been pretty good over the last month and a half, we have been able to start to hold down other teams and be in control of games, and when we do lose control, we haven’t given up goals as easily,” said Wolyniec. “With us tightening up in the back and getting better, improving, I think a lot of it has to do with confidence, what better challenge than to go up against the best in the league and guys are adjusting to MLS to the near future? That is what our guys want … to prove themselves against and now we have that opportunity to do that.”
Arguably the biggest matchup in that area on Saturday could pit young Red Bulls II defender Hassan Ndam – who earlier this month was selected to the USL 20 Under 20 for a second time – against experienced FC Cincinnati forward Fanendo Adi. As one of the players who has gone through this type of playoff pressure before, it’s a matchup that Ndam believes he is prepared for after his experiences squaring off with the likes of Bradley Wright-Phillips regularly in training with the Red Bulls.
“For me at the end of the day I just give respect,” said Ndam. “[Adi] did all these things in MLS and he is the top scorer here, he’s a great player and has great ability, but at the end of the day I practice with Bradley Wright-Phillips. Defending BWP is like, I think, much better than defending him. I learn a lot from that, and everything goes in 50-50 and we end up seeing who the winner is. I’m not going to say anything, that I’m going to dominate the game, but I am going to help my teammates as we try and get a win as a team moving forward to the next level.”
With the Red Bulls II having previously claimed victory at Nippert Stadium two seasons ago on its way to the 2016 USL Regular Season Championship when its leaders were players like Tyler Adams, Brandon Allen, Vincent Bezecourt and Florian Valot, its new group of players is certainly looking forward to its chance to follow a similar path this postseason.
“It certainly will be a huge challenge for us, but that’s what is exciting about it and what we spend the whole year working [toward], to play in big games in great environments in front of big crowds,” said Wolyniec. “Hopefully we are ready for the challenge.”