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NYRB II roster a future model for Bethlehem Steel FC

The Baby Bulls’ game day roster against Steel FC on Sunday showed what a team full of current and former Academy players looks like.

Derrick Jones fights to keep possession against NYRB II midfielder Dan Metzger
Pat Jacoby Photography

When NYRB II sent out its starting XI for Sunday afternoon’s game with Bethlehem Steel FC at Lehigh University, there was a common thread connecting more than half of their players.

That common thread was the New York Red Bulls Academy.

More than half of the starting lineup (Kevin O’Toole, Tyler Adams, David Metzler, David Najem, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Brandon Allen) were current or former members of the Academy. Another three players with ties to the Academy (Sam Ilin, Ben Mines and Konrad Plewa) were on the game day roster.

By comparison, Steel FC’s starting XI featured as many New York Red Bulls Academy grads as Philadelphia Union Academy ones. Bolu Akinyode was a Red Bull youth prior to attending Seton Hall and his midfield partner Derrick Jones was the first (and still only) to sign a pro contract with Steel FC out of the Union Academy. He’s since signed to the first team and been loaned back.

Steel FC’s bench on Sunday did feature four current Academy players in Justin McMaster, Anthony Fontana, Josue Monge and Matt Real but only two, McMaster and Fontana, saw minutes as substitutes.

This disparity between Union Academy players (five) and Red Bulls Academy players (10) in the game day rosters shouldn’t be read as a negative, however.

The New York Red Bulls, after all, have had a head start.

Their Academy was founded in 2005 while the Union’s full-time Academy and school were only launched in 2013 (before that it was essentially a part-time all-star team of players from local youth affiliates).

The Red Bulls USL team had just a year head start, but building on the strength of a well established (and successful) Academy system the Baby Bulls finished in fourth place last year and have become the toast of the league this season with the league’s best record. Their 2-0 win (Academy alums Allen and Etienne Jr. got the goals) on Sunday was their sixth straight.

Based on a small sample size of two seasons, it would seem that the Red Bulls have already figured out how to have it both ways in the debate over winning now versus developing players for the future.

This approach of Academy-to-USL-to-first-team for player development is one the Union have clearly adopted themselves with recent homegrown signings Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty.

But a dismal season in terms of results (only the Canadian MLS-owned teams have faired worse out of the crop of MLS2 teams) won’t help with creating a culture of winning or the organization’s other goals of developing a fan culture and growing the game in the Lehigh Valley.

The Red Bulls have paid zero attention to these other factors - even playing in a college football stadium with empty seats galore and recently painted gridiron markings Steel FC have drawn five times what the Red Bulls did in season one.

But in terms of player development the rivals are two peas in a pod who are regularly battling for supremacy at the top of the division standings in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and in the Generation adidas Cup.

The Union still have work to do to catch the more established Red Bulls in this area, but the residency program and YSC Academy are already helping to close the gap in terms of player recruitment and development. Add in this new ability to have Academy players train with Steel FC and earn minutes as amateurs and you can see why a game like Sunday’s will look very different in seasons to come.

Rather than filling the roster with journeymen and previous unknowns, we’ll have more Derrick Joneses and Auston Trustys to supplement SuperDraft picks and discovery signings.

Just like the Red Bulls have now.