16-year-old Serge Ngoma Tops Comeback at Red Bull Arena

Thursday, the New York Red Bulls came back to defeat Atlanta United FC 2-1 on Red Bull academy product Serge Ngoma's 89th minute goal at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

The North Plainfield native Serge Ngoma made his Major league Soccer (MLS) debut in Red Bull's first game of the 2022 season on Feb. 27 and came on as a substitute a week later before a hamstring injury sidelined him for over three months. Yet on June 30 at Red bull arena, the Jersey boy made a triumphant return to his team who were chasing first place in the Eastern Conference standings.

The beginning of this match against Atlanta United did not go as planned for Red Bull and this was due to the fact that two of the Red Bulls best starting players, center-back Aaron Long and midfielder Luquinhas were infected with COVID during their recent road trip and had to stay in California in accordance with MLS safety protocol. As a result, neither trained with their team this week but Long did start this game at center back and looked sharp.

However, the Red Bulls offense was out of sync early on and did not produce a shot-on-goal against goalkeeper Rios Novo who was making his third MLS start. In the first twenty minutes, Red Bull striker, Patryk Klimala picked up a loose ball just feet away from the goal and took a rushed shot that was blocked. Atlanta United would produce the game's first shot on goal when Brazilian attacking midfielder, Luiz Araujo controlled the ball inside red bull's 18 and unleashed a high shot that goalkeeper Carlos Coronel jumped and pushed over the bar. Red Bull's biggest chance in the first half was Cameron Harper one-timing a low cross from winger Lewis Morgan that was blocked by a United defender in the 44th minute.

Here is what Red Bull coach Gerhard Struber had to say about the first half.

I was surprised with Atlanta's system, [because they used] a back three.  After 30 minutes, Atlanta had two good chances but, in the end, not more. Then we made changes and were flexible enough to do it. Especially, in the second half, the tens had good distances and some good chances to press, and we had some good moments.

Momentum Shifts in Half Two

Red Bull Head Coach Struber subbed off Klimala and midfielder Cameron Harper for Tom Barlow and Luquinhas, who would provide energy. However, Atlanta made a push in the 56th minute when striker Ronald Cisneros managed a shot from outside the box that forced Coronel to make a diving save.

After taking United's second shot-on-goal, Cisneros was subbed off in favor of one time MLS Golden boot-winner Josef Martinez as a deafening round of boos rained down from the crowd. A little more than ten minutes later, things got hairy for Red Bull when Atlanta crossed into their box and the ball was headed back into the middle. Midfielder Emerson Hyndman took a one-time shot that was blocked by Red Bull center back Sean Nealis, but the rebound was put away by Martinez, giving the visitors the first lead of the match.

In the 82nd minute, the Red Bulls responded on the backs of their Brazilian hero, Luquinhas. The Brazilian was making moves inside Atlanta's box when he dashed for the end-line and was tripped up and the referee awarded a penalty kick. Lewis Morgan would take it, sending Rios Novo the wrong way and finishing down the middle to tie the game.

I've always said, 'if you don't take a penalty, you'll never miss one.' [Taking penalties] it's something that I trust myself, the work I do away from the field, looking at goalkeepers and hopefully can continue to find the back of the net with.

Soon after the Red Bulls tied the game, substitute Serge Ngoma got the home crowd on their feet. The New Jersey native hunted down a defender, dispossessed him and dribbled in on a breakaway. Ngoma took a big touch in front of the goalkeeper and as soon as Rios Novo came towards him, side-footed the ball into the back of the net to give New York a 2-1 lead.

The Red Bulls closed out the game despite enduring five minutes of stoppage time and the 16-year-old from the Red Bull academy was the hero. This was the youngster's first MLS goal and with it he becomes the youngest player to score in the league this year and the third youngest in New York's franchise history dating back to the Metrostars franchise which was founded in 1994. Ngoma humbly described his feelings on scoring the winning goal.

It's a blessing to be in this position at 16 years old and be able to score my first time playing in [Red Bull] arena and have my family there. My dad who trained me since day one. My mom, who's the best mother in the world and my sister as well, best sister in the world. To have them here to share that moment with me was amazing.

This year, the Red Bulls roster includes three players under 20; Wikelman Carmona and Somerset County native Daniel Edelman but Ngoma is the youngest by three years. Tonight's hero is yet to establish himself as an everyday MLS player, but Coach Struber discussed after the game why he feels Ngoma "is ready" to make that next step.

 He has talent otherwise he would not play here but for me it's much more important his mentality and that makes the difference... It's a question of attitude and how ready he is in our match plan. How ready he is in the basics. I'm very happy for him but it's not a question of age, it's a question of quality and today, he showed me he is ready.

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Anthony graduated from Montclair State University, where he covered a variety of sports for three years. He co-hosts a sports-themed radio show on campus radio station, WMSC 90.3 FM, which was recently named #1 college radio station in the nation.