USL Preview: Top two teams battle for Eastern crown

Red Bulls II dominated the USL regular season and set league records for wins, points, and goals, yet barely scraped past defending champion Rochester last weekend in a penalty-kick shootout. Louisville City failed to score in two losses against NYRBII this season but has pitched shutouts in its two playoff games to set up this showdown.

USL Eastern Conference final
No. 1 NY Red Bulls II vs. No. 2 Louisville City, Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET
To reach the USL Cup final, all Louisville City FC has to do is beat a foe it has never beaten or even tied. On the road.

Said foe is also the regular-season champion that set league records for wins, points, and goals, and Louisville head coach James O’Connor is realistic about what his team is up against Sunday at Red Bull Arena. “We’re clearly the underdogs going into the game, he said. “That’s pretty obvious to everyone who is a fan of the game, but that is everyone else. We have faith in ourselves. I think in a game like that, a one-off game, anything can happen.”

What has happened previously -- twice this year and twice last year -- are Red Bulls II victories. This season, Louisville City finished second in the Eastern Conference, nine points behind NYRB. It lost two games to Red Bulls II -- 2-0 at Slugger Field in early April, and 1-0 at Red Bull Arena Aug. 19.-- and only two to everybody else. Its 60 points were eight points more than the total accumulated by Western Conference winner Sacramento Republic FC.

In the playoffs, Louisville City is riding a shutout streak of its own: it downed Richmond, 2-0, in Round 1, and last weekend eliminated Charleston, 1-0, on a goal by Kadeem Dacres in the 53rd minute. LCFC’s top scorer (14 goals) during the regular season, Chandler Hoffman, has one postseason goal.

A goal by Brandon Allen -- one of his 15 during the regular season -- determined the outcome when the teams met at Red Bull Arena. He also scored during the April game, as did Junior Flemmings. Yet Red Bulls II stumbled badly in its conference semifinal against defending champion Rochester. It twice took the lead but conceded equalizers to force overtime, and trailed, 3-2, in OT until Allen’s penalty kick in the 119th minute kept its season alive. Red Bulls II won the penalty-kick shootout, 5-4, in front of a dismal crowd (1,229). 

“Yeah, we knew we were going to be up against a great opponent, we knew it was going to be a tough test,” said head coach John Wolyniec. “We did a lot of good things, we made some mistakes. The best thing about the effort though was that we just kept fighting, kept going. Even when things looked the darkest, we were still pushing forward and we pulled off a play in the end to tie it up, and you go five-for-five in PKs, shows a lot of character in the guys.”

Allen’s extra-time goal was his third in the playoffs. Red Bulls II is unbeaten in its last 12 games and has won six straight at home. Louisville is also on a roll; it has six wins in the last seven games (while allowing just two goals) and hasn’t lost since being beaten at Red Bull Arena.

“It does help that we’ve been there before, and we’ve had guys that have been in the league or have played in big games,” said defender Tarek Morad. “For the most part, we all feel like we are ready for the big challenge this weekend.”
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