USL Final: Red Bulls II favored, but Rangers are ready

Horse-racing metaphors occasionally apply to other sports, and for the USL Cup final to be staged Sunday (ESPNU, 8 p.m. Eastern), it’s a match race of two very different contestants.

Red Bulls II took command of the Eastern Conference midway and went on to set league marks for wins, points, and goals, though it wobbled a bit down the stretch in the playoffs and needed shootouts to edge past Rochester and Louisville just before the finish line.

“I wish there was another word for more proud than 'proud', but the group's been great,” said head coach John Wolyniec after the conference final win over Louisville. “We've had such a great season, guys have poured so much into it and we certainly like to make it interesting.”

Swope Park Rangers, racing at this level for the first time, stumbled out of the gate and fell back to 13th place before rallying into the postseason as the fourth-place team and then dispatching Galaxy II, Orange County Blues FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2. Though it doesn’t share the name of its parent club, Sporting Kansas City, as does Red Bulls II, in its expansion season SPR has demonstrated a very professional persona.

“We had a bad spell, I think a five-game spell without winning a game, but the group always stayed together,” said Rangers head coach Marc Dos Santos.  “I think the mentality of the group, the cohesion of the group, the mentality of the club – that has been a winning club in the last five years in MLS – we wanted to continue that work in the USL team.
“I think that was a turning point, in a moment when things were not going very well, we kept working and believing in what we were doing.”

SPR has conceded just one goal in its three playoff games and forward Kris Tyrpak is tied for the lead in playoff goals with three. He netted twice in a 3-0 defeat of VWFC2 that was the team’s seventh straight victory. Tyrpak is tied for the playoff lead with Red Bulls II forward Brandon Allen, who netted 15 goals during the regular season and was named by the league Wednesday as a finalist for USL MVP as well as Rookie of the Year.

Wolyniec and Dos Santos are finalists for Coach of the Year, and SPR's Amer Didic and NYRBII's Aaron Long are eligible to be Defender of the Year.

Three SWP players debuted for the SKC first team in a Concacaf Champions League match Wednesday, and 19-year-old Nansel Selbol scored one of the goals in a 3-1 victory. Tomas Granitto and Alex Molano also played and will bring that experience to bear against Red Bulls II in the USL title game, but Selbol is suspended due to a red card he was issued in the conference final.

“The team played well, we played well and this gives us the confidence to play Sunday in the Final in New York,” Granitto added.

The size of the USL conferences -- there are 15 teams in the East and 14 in the West -- precludes any crossover of games during the regular season and thus there is no past history between the teams head-to-head. Both teams hit the playoffs in good form but it is the record-breaking Red Bulls II that has labored recently.

Red Bulls II finished the regular season with nine wins in its last 10 games and blew away Orlando City B, 4-0, in its first playoff game. It hasn’t been as dominant in the last two games.

It needed a late goal to force penalty kicks in the conference semis against Rochester and prevailed, 5-4, after a 3-3 tie, and had to rally again with a goal by Florian Valot after Louisville City scored in the 11th minute. This time, it won the shootout, 4-3, thanks in part to a pair of saves by keeper Ryan Meara.

“We are pumped up, we're all really happy. I think the fact that we went through it last week against Rochester, going through the penalty shootout, I think it gave us some confidence tonight that once it got to penalties we were ready,” said Meara. “Sometimes, like against Rochester last week for whatever reason, I went the wrong way a couple of times and tonight I had the right feel for it and it's just one of those things you just kind of have to let your instincts take over and when you do pick a side, you have to go all out - and, luckily, tonight I made a couple of saves.”

A wild finish to extra time preceded the shootout. Louisville City lost two players to red cards and just before the final whistle another ejection reduced Red Bulls II to 10 men. Fortunately, Wolyniec had enough shooters available as well as Meara in the nets to survive another nail-biter.

“But, you know, a lot of times that makes it more enjoyable when you succeed,” said Wolyniec. “So happy for them. The guys are real happy and they deserve it.”
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