Heading into 2023, there were plenty of unknowns for a New York Red Bulls II club that was entering their inaugural season in MLS NEXT Pro after competing in USL Championship for the previous seven years.
New York also saw major changes in their roster, with only fourteen players returning of the forty that appeared in matches during the 2022 season.
With a new squad, the coaching staff needed to be locked in as well. Newly appointed Head Coach Ibrahim Sekagya shed his Interim title that he earned halfway through the 2022 season and was ready for the challenge of leading a new squad in a new league.
In a season full of history, here are just a few of the memorable moments from 2023:
After earning three points in their first three matches, New York Red Bulls II were clearly still getting used to their new league, but that transition period did not come without positive moments to build on.
On April 16th, Red Bulls II were set for a clash at MSU Soccer Park against Huntsville City FC, a fellow expansion club who were looking for their first win in their history in addition to their first in MLS NEXT Pro.
The match ended up being a defensive battle, which was one of the main storylines over the course of the entire season for New York.
The first and only goal of the match came in stoppage time of the first half, when forward Oladayo Thomas played a ball to midfielder Ricardo Gorday, who found the back of the net for what ended up being the match winner.
Goalkeeper A.J. Marcucci posted his first of seven clean sheets on the season after recording four saves in the contest.
Not only was it win number one in MLS NEXT Pro for New York Red Bulls II, but it was also the first win as Head Coach for Ibrahim Sekagya.
HITTING THE CENTURY MARK
New York entered the 2023 season with 98 wins in the club’s history, so, after securing their first win in their new league, there was even more history to be made just one week later.
Red Bulls II hit the road for the first of their eventual four matchups against New England Revolution II, and the squad was hungry to keep their winning ways rolling and secure win number 100 in the club’s ninth season.
This match was one of the many instances in which the goalkeeping and defensive play from New York guided the squad to a victory. After a stalemate for the first 75 minutes, New York finally found their breakthrough.
In his first start with the club, midfielder Ibrahim Kasule used his body and managed to draw a penalty shot to give his side the best chance of the match. Stepping up to take the penalty was forward Oladayo Thomas, who calmly placed the ball past the New England goalkeeper to secure the lead, and eventually, the victory. In addition to being the match-winner, the goal was the first of Thomas’ professional career.
The one goal ended up being the difference thanks to another stellar performance in net from A.J. Marcucci. The West Chester, Pennsylvania native recorded six saves in the contest, including one from the penalty spot to vault Red Bulls II to their 100th win in the club’s history.
IBRAHIM KASULE: RECORD BREAKER
If you looked back on the 2023 season for New York Red Bulls II, there is one name that immediately jumps off the stat sheet, Ibrahim Kasule.
After signing with the club on March 30th from Wakiso Giants FC in the Ugandan Premier League, the 19-year-old midfielder needed a few weeks to find his top form with Red Bulls II. It took until his eighth appearance on May 26th against Huntsville City FC for him to find that form, and when he did, he did not look back.
From that point on, the Ugandan began a historic goal scoring stretch that broke both club and league records. Kasule put together a seven-match goal scoring streak, which was the longest in both club and league history. In addition, Kasule scored fifteen goals on the year, putting him into a tie with Brandon Allen (2016) and Jared Stroud (2019) for the most goals in a regular season in club history.
Those accomplishments did not come without their fair share of accolades as well. The midfielder won back-to-back MLS NEXT Pro Player of the Month awards for July and August, something that no other player had accomplished in the league’s history. His fantastic regular season also earned him the honor of being named to the Best XI in MLS NEXT Pro.
BULLS ON FIRE
Towards the end of July, New York Red Bulls II were still trying to cement themselves as one of the top teams in the conference. The club was sitting towards the bottom end of the playoff line and needed a solid run of form to close out the season and secure the highest seed possible.
After a 2-1 loss against Philadelphia Union II on July 16th, the story began to change, and more consistent results would soon follow.
To start, Red Bulls II put together a three-match unbeaten streak in which they claimed eight points against FC Cincinnati 2, Orlando City B, and New England Revolution II. The club would drop a match against Toronto FC II, but that would not stop them from having their highest offensive output of the season in the upcoming four game stretch.
In what was a dominant run to close out the season, New York Red Bulls II put on a show in the attacking third. Starting with the eventual Eastern Conference champion Columbus Crew 2, New York led a convincing 5-0 victory on the road thanks to goals from five different players and an impressive performance in net from both A.J. Marcucci and Alan Rutkowski.
The high scoring would not be limited to that game, as Red Bulls II continued their form for the next three matches in a 4-2 in over Atlanta United 2, a 5-4 win over Chicago Fire FC II, and lastly a 3-0 win against Toronto FC II.
The squad posted three-plus goals in every match during that four-game stretch, which no other team has done in the club’s eight-year history. This stretch vaulted New York up to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings as they headed into what would be their first playoff appearance in MLS NEXT Pro in their inaugural season.
WIN OR GO HOME
Set to face Chicago Fire FC II in the first round for their first playoff match in MLS NEXT Pro, New York Red Bulls II had their eyes set on a victory at MSU Soccer Park. After going 1-0-1 against Chicago during the regular season, New York knew that it would be a battle to advance to the next round.
It would not take long for Red Bulls II to make their mark in the match, as Frank Ssebufu continued his form from the regular season and got on the board in the twelfth minute to take the lead.
Not long after, O’Vonte Mullings doubled New York’s lead after receiving a beautiful pass from Ibrahim Kasule. Even with a comfortable two goal lead, the squad did not stop there.
Kasule would continue his impact on the match, this time finding the back of the net. The Ugandan found himself right in front of the Chicago goal and sent in multiple shots that eventually made it through the goalkeeper for his first goal of the playoffs and his sixteenth of the year.
After conceding a goal in the second half, Red Bulls II had an immediate answer. To the surprise of no one, Kasule continued his historic year in this match. In similar fashion to his first goal of the match, the 19-year-old sent in multiple shots that would eventually beat the keeper to secure his brace.
The victory marked New York’s first playoff victory in MLS NEXT Pro, eighth in club history, and first since 2018. Red Bulls II continued their undefeated record at home in postseason play as they improved to 4-0-2 all-time.