Photo courtesy New York Red Bulls II
HARRISON, N.J. – As Steevan Dos Santos’ shot to open the fourth round of the penalty shootout for the Rochester Rhinos went high over New York Red Bulls II goalkeeper Ryan Meara’s crossbar, standing at the halfway line, Konrad Plewa’s head rose.
“When he missed, I just looked to the sky and said, ‘please, God, let me bring this home,’” said the New York Red Bulls II defender.
With the win on his shoulders, Plewa came through, as his penalty kick gave the Red Bulls II a 5-4 shootout victory in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2016 USL Cup Playoffs after New York and Rochester had played to a 3-3 draw through 120 minutes of enthralling action at Red Bull Arena.
“It’s amazing,” said Plewa. “I’ve been through some stuff this year, and to get this penalty it’s really indescribable. I’m just enjoying the moment right now, I still kind of can’t believe how it went down, and I’m really at a loss for words.”
In contrast to the two scoreless draws the sides had played in the regular season at Red Bull Arena, the second postseason meeting between the No. 1-seed Red Bulls II and No. 4-seed Rhinos provided all manner of twists and turns. Twice New York took the lead in the first half as Derrick Etienne Jr. and Brandon Allen both found the net, but as he had almost a year ago to the day in their first playoff encounter, Dos Santos struck twice to get the visitors level.
Both sides had chances after Dos Santos’ second goal of the night 10 minutes into the second half, including a last-gasp chance for the Red Bulls II’s Stefano Bonomo that was denied by Rhinos goalkeeper Tomas Gomez, an outstanding close-range save by the USL Golden Glove award-winner.
Going in, though, the Red Bulls II’s history against the Rhinos had not been a good one, and when Wal Fall put Rochester ahead with 10 minutes to go in overtime, it seemed as though the defending USL champions had found a way to maintain the upper hand on their regional rival.
This time, though, the Red Bulls II found a reply of their own. After being stymied by a packed penalty area on a pair of set piece chances, a surging run into the penalty area by midfielder Dan Metzger drew a foul and a penalty kick. Allen stepped up, and buried his shot past his former Georgetown teammate Gomez.
“I think Dan had confidence in me and the whole team had the confidence in me to take the PK, so I took it, went up and buried it down the middle,” said Allen. “I was pretty confident because I had gone to school with Tomas, and he knows pretty much where I go every time, so I was pretty confident.”
For Plewa, who came on as a substitute moments after Fall had put the Rhinos ahead, the fight the team showed to find a way to send the game to a shootout showed the biggest difference between the side that fell at this stage last season, and the one that had claimed this year’s USL Regular Season Championship.
“I don’t want to say it was depleting, but we’d been pushing and we’d been up two times, so for them to score was kind of like a letdown, but this team never gives up,” Plewa said. “I think that’s the biggest difference between our team this year and last year, the fight to the end. We knew with 10 minutes left we still had a shot. Guys kept grinding, and there were a lot of guys who put in a great performance today, and it was because of their hard work that were able to pull back a third goal.”
With the backing of Coach John Wolyniec behind him to take the fifth slot in the shootout, Plewa stepped up and converted, just as he’d hoped to.
“[Assistant coach] Ibra [Sekagya] came over to me before we went to the center circle and he asked if I was OK being number five, and I was kind of hoping I would be number five, you know?” Plewa said. “When Dos Santos missed, the guys were saying relax, no pressure, just step up there and do your thing.”
And while the Red Bulls II now have a meeting with either Louisville City FC or the Charleston Battery to look forward to next Sunday night in the Eastern Conference Final, vanquishing their longtime nemesis will carry the side forward with a major boost of confidence as they take aim at claiming the USL Cup.
“We really wanted to beat this team,” said Etienne Jr. “It’s just the battle in every game, all three games, I cannot even tell you how bad I wanted to beat this team. To get them into PKs, we were confident in the five that was going to step up, and we just knew if we bury our job, we knew Ryan would get at least one, so it was a good victory.”