This Saturday night, New York Red Bulls II are in California to take on Sacramento Republic FC for the first time ever and the last time they played a west coast team resulted in a draw with LA Galaxy II in 2018. Fans can stream the match, Saturday at 11:00 PM EST on ESPN Plus.
The 2021 USL Championship season has been unique. The league has grown to 31 teams spread out across four division from the east to west coast of the United States. One thing that normally does not happen in the USL Championship, and certainly didn't happen during the COVID season of 2020, is a team from the east coast trekking 3,000 miles across the United States to play a team on the west coast. Saturday at 1:00 PM Eastern, New York Red Bulls II fans will have a chance to watch their Baby Red Bulls take on Sacramento Republic FC.
We take on @SacRepublicFC tomorrow night at 11 p.m. ET. Don't miss our first match on the West Coast since 2018!
— New York Red Bulls II (@NYRBII) July 30, 2021
Sacramento and Red Bulls II have nearly identical records this season and both sit in seventh place in their Atlantic and Pacific divisions. New talents have sprung forth such as the mercurial midfield sensation, Jeremy Rafanello whose 3 goals and three assists ranks him second and first on the team in those cats. He's also a good free kick specialist and a skilled passer, which is something that is yet to pay off for his team but almost did on two free kicks in Red Bulls II's last home game.
Sacramento are a lot like the Baby Red Bulls in that, they have a young squad and have had to scrap for every point. That was the case on July 10 against Orange County, when Nabi Kibunguchy scored an improbable header after 90 minutes in stoppage time to earn a draw.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) July 25, 2021
Head coach John Wolyniec has been with Red Bulls II for six years and was managing the side that traveled to Los Angeles in 2018. He explained a little bit about how this West Coast game came to be.
We requested this game, [because] we felt like it was a great environment to put our players in. When we invest in this platform, those tough games and those special environments are the places that we feel we get the most value out of [our players] so we're excited to go and we're going treat this game as an important game."
Baby Red Bulls, Back in Black
Good news, fans, center-back Emir Tombul will return to the lineup on Saturday, after completing his one-game suspension due to earning a straight red card just two games ago. The 6'4" defender is also quite the traveler, having played U-17 and U-19 soccer in Switzerland and spending last season in an U-23 league in languid, coastal Portugal.
Tombul not only adds great size to a Red Bull defense that lacks it. During the Red Bulls' last game, their two starting center-backs were a 6'0" Kyle Zajec and 5'9" Joey Zalinsky. It will be a relief to have the physical abilities of Emir Tombul at the back against an unfamiliar foe and Coach Wolyniec mentioned the boost that Tombul can provide for his young Baby Red Bull team as they wade into unchartered waters in Sacramento, tomorrow.
“He's a guy who's been one of our defensive stalwarts this season,” Wolyniec said. “That will help us because one, it gives us a better comfort level with our lineup, he’s made progress this year and I think he’ll give us stability in the back.” - Red Bulls II Coach John Wolyniec
Speaking of Red Bulls II players itching to play, Striker Omar Sowe is currently on a three-game goal-scoring-streak. The native of Harrison, New Jersey is tied for the team-lead with four goals in 2021 and scored goals on July 7 at Charlotte and July 10 at Hartford.
— New York Red Bulls II (@NYRBII) July 26, 2021
The Baby Red Bulls have several attacking options that are on point-streaks. Midfielder, Jake LaCava may not be driving the ball into the net, but he is just as important as a set-up man. The 20-year-0ld who has lived in North Jersey during his lifetime, has three assists in his last four matches. Whenever the Red Bulls II are firing on all cylinders, LaCava is stoking the flames so the team are relying on LaCava to keep up the good work offensively on Saturday.
The Story of Zajec
It’s been a year-long journey for Georgetown University product Kyle Zajec to return to the Red Bulls II lineup. Zajec started 15 of his 20 appearances for New York in 2019. He even scored a brace on June 1, 2019 and four goals during the 2019 USL season, overall.
In 2020, Zajec captained the team in its first three matches before suffering a fractured foot in a game at Red Bull Arena on July 26, 2020.
Now in 2021, after spending a year working his way back to fitness, Zajec has returned to the lineup. The Connecticut-native is not playing his familiar position of midfield, instead he has sacrificed that familiarity to fill in at center-back during these last three matches. The team has come away with a win, a loss and a tie, the win an exciting 3-2 comeback victory on the road. This is yet another example of the dedicated 24-year-old veteran making difficult adjustments to his life and his approach in order to help his team out.
“There’s not too many guys that stay three years with us and sometimes that's due to injuries," Wolyniec said. "We value Kyle, he's intelligent, hard-working and a great role model for the guys, and a guy whose been with Red Bull since he was 13-years-old. Whether he was playing or not, he’s valuable to have around and now that he’s back it’s just heightened that importance.
Kyle Zajec is really a great example of that "never give up" attitude that you always hear about but rarely take the time to understand. He has suffered some serious injuries during his three years with the Red Bulls II, and never has Zajec thrown in the towel. Instead he has worked hard to put himself into a position to start on a very competitive roster with a lot of younger players this season. Zajec is the best example of a player on the team sacrificing his individual desires to play the position he wants to play, and adjust his game so he can play the position that his team needs him to play.