Thursday, April 6, 2017

Harrisburg City Islanders 1 at New York Red Bulls II 0 (USL) - April 5, 2017

The US soccer pyramid has undergone some substantial changes over the past few years, with the most notable the emergence of the United Soccer League as a de facto minor circuit. Founded in 2010, the USL has used an aggressive expansion strategy along with a partnership with MLS that leaves it with 30 clubs for the 2017 season, nearly four times the 8 franchises that remain in the NASL, which was considered the unofficial second-tier in the pyramid when it first began in 2009. Both leagues are now officially sanctioned as Division II, but with two franchises (including my hometown Ottawa Fury) leaving the NASL for the USL this past offseason, it is clear that the USL is in the ascendancy. The partnership with MLS helps as well as 22 USL teams have an affiliation with an MLS club.

Many of these affiliations are pretty obvious as the USL team simply adopts the name of their parent club and affixes a II, 2, or B to the end. One such club is the New York Red Bulls II, who began play in the 2015 season. For their first two seasons, they played primarily at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, home of their parent organization, but this year they made the move to MSU Soccer Park on the campus of Montclair State University. Still, they will play twice at Red Bull Arena, with one of those games on Wednesday night. I have a very occasional part-time job doing live reporting from venues and was asked to cover this game, so I headed out to Harrison after work to add the USL to my list of leagues seen. The USL does not draw well, which meant no crowds whatsoever, perhaps dissuaded by the $15 ticket price. Unfettered by fellow fans, I was able to grab a good shot of the exterior of the stadium (above) and a panorama of the empty interior below.

Attendance was announced at 396 but perhaps half that were actually inside the venue. The visitors were the Harrisburg City Islanders (so named because their home stadium is on City Island), one of the original franchises still in the league, though they lack an MLS affiliate.

As I wandered around the empty concourse, I noticed that some pillars had been painted with historic moments in the Red Bulls franchise, including the formation of the junior club. A nice addition to one of the best soccer-only facilities in the country, but all that is worth noting here.

The Red Bulls II are the defending USL champions and were on a 12-game undefeated streak dating back to last year, but played like crap for most of the night. Harrisburg scoring the only goal in the 62nd minute when former Red Bull and Puerto Rican national Manolo Sanchez took advantage of a poor back-header by defender Michael Murillo, beating keeper Ryan Meara to the loose ball and slotting easily into the empty net. The Red Bulls had a glorious chance to tie a few minutes later but Zeiko Lewis just missed with only the keeper to beat.

Overall, the quality of play wasn't that good, possibly about the level of League Two in England if I had to hazard a guess, and even that might be a bit generous. It is difficult to compare leagues across countries, but one point to note is that Jack McBean of LA Galaxy II, leading the league in scoring at the time, was loaned to League One side Coventry and made only six appearances over six months, though he did score 7 goals for their U23 side. Still, it is silly to be critical based on one game, after all, the USL is a development league, so expectations should be tempered. The players are young and have bright futures, so if you are a soccer fan, this is a league worth watching. With 30 teams, many in smaller markets, it is also a great addition for summer sports road trips.

Next Up

Baseball's back! I'll continue my Toronto on the Road series with a trip to St. Louis in a couple of weeks to see all three games there, along with a return to Jackson, Mississippi to finally complete the Southern League after a rainout last year. This will begin a busy summer as I try to complete the minor league parks (I still have 27 to do). As always, updates will be posted here, so check back then.



No comments:

Post a Comment