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Second Act: RJ Allen helps guide New Jersey United to playoffs

The former New York City FC defender is now an assistant coach in the National Premier Soccer League — when he's not working at his family's pizzerias.

Courtesy New Jersey United AC

Here’s a name that older New York City FC fans might remember: RJ Allen.

The defender from Metuchen, New Jersey was signed during the team’s first season and played three seasons in the Bronx before being traded to Orlando City in 2017. A solid competitor who has surely entered the annals of players that friends will bring up when naming random athletes. (It’s cheaper than getting therapy).

Buried deep in Hudson River Blue’s archive, you will find an article by a much younger Sam Dunn making the claim that Allen has one of the best, if not the best, assists in New York City’s history on a David Villa goal in May 2016. Yes, that was only in the second year of the team’s existence. But it’s still a damn good assist.

Now retired from professional play, Allen is back in the game in a different role. The 34-year-old is an assistant coach with New Jersey United AC, a new team that started playing competitively just this year. After a successful inaugural season in the National Premier Soccer League, New Jersey United is heading to the North Atlantic Conference playoffs this week.

As the #3 seed, the team will hit the road and face #2 Hartford City FC in Connecticut on Wednesday, July 10. The winner of that semifinal will move on to play the #1 New York Shockers on Saturday, July 13 in the North Atlantic Conference final.

Did RJ Allen make the greatest assist in NYCFC history on Sunday night in Portland?
Damn, son: That is, quite simply, a hero-level throughball.

From flippin’ pies to training guys

All things considered, retirement from soccer was going pretty well for Allen. In May 2020, he married his longtime girlfriend Valentina Viterbo. Two years later, the couple welcomed twin girls, Alessia and Gemma, into the world. When he isn’t being a Dad, Allen acts as both owner and director of training at Advanced Physical and Technical Training (AP2T), a soccer training facility in Metuchen, or can be found moonlighting at one of the three Mangia Brick Oven Pizza restaurants his family owns.

In that regard, it’s surprising to see Allen on the sideline for New Jersey United this season. But when owner Faton Bauta reached out to him to get insight on starting a team, it got the ball rolling.

“I always wanted to be a part of something from the ground up and the project that he presented to me was very special and unique and it was something that I was extremely interested in,” Allen said in a phone interview. “Being a part of something from the ground floor is special.”

Courtesy New Jersey United AC

New Jersey United has been something different in terms of expansion teams. The group practices nearly every day, something that can be uncommon in the amateur to semi-professional world of the lower leagues. Whether practice is at Allen’s own facility or his alma mater at Saint Joe's High School, he and the other staff have, in their words, created a professional environment.

“No matter what you do in life, in order to be great, you gotta have a group of guys who are committed, day in, day out, week in week out, who wanna be there, wanna be a part of it,” Allen explained. “I think that from a staff perspective, we create an environment where it's something that people want to be a part of. When you're looking from the outside and you're like, ‘I want to be a part of that’, because not only do we do things for the players on the field, but we take care of them off the field as well. It's important. It's an environment that you wanna be a part of. It's professional.”

Allen isn’t the only one doling out years of knowledge to New Jersey United’s roster. Head coach Fernando Barboto spent six seasons with the North Jersey Imperials in the early days of the United Soccer League and currently also serves as head coach of the NJIT Highlanders men's soccer team in NCAA Division 1. Fellow assistant coach Samuel Roca played professional soccer abroad and currently serves as the head coach at Allen’s own alma mater, Saint Josephs.

New Jersey United’s Successful start

When the team began their season on May 4, that involved a long trip from Jersey to Hartford, CT. What followed was a 3-0 loss to Hartford City FC at Trinity Health Stadium, something many would have expected from an expansion side.

“Typically, not much is expected of any expansion franchise in their first season,” said assistant coach Samuel Roca. “But this is not your typical group of players.”

In the remaining nine regular season games, New Jersey United managed to win six of them. Each of those victories came as a clean sheet, with much of that thanks to St. John’s University and former NYCFC academy goalkeeper Max Pfaffman.

Other players have had stellar seasons on the ball too. Forward Diego Navas notched six goals during the campaign, the third most in the North Atlantic. The William Paterson University player, going into his senior year this fall, has credited everything New Jersey United has done for helping him improve as a player.

"Being a member of United has been such a positive influence on my soccer career,” Navas said. “Best believe I'm looking forward to making an impact in the playoffs."

United was already in a strange position coming into 2024. Despite being geographically more aligned with the nearby Keystone East Conference, alongside nearby neighbor FC Monmouth, NPSL instead put the expansion side in the North Atlantic with New York and New England teams. That means a lot of travel up north.

But as the season wore on, New Jersey United adapted. They made their home at Saint Joseph High School a fortress, taking advantage of that same travel other teams had to do to get there, and won three of the five home matches they hosted.

Allen wasn’t exactly new to being on new teams either though, harkening back to that 2015 season in New York City.

“When we were an expansion club going through this, there's a lot of first times, and when you went through the second time, you kind of understood a little bit more,” Allen said of his ethos this season. “There's a lot of unknowns and for me, as a group, we've answered those questions each and every week and as a group, we've gotten better tactically, and more familiar with each other each and every week.”

Allen's NPSL pedigree

Allen isn’t totally new to the NPSL. In 2019, after being waived by Orlando City in the offseason, Allen joined up with FC Motown in Morristown, NJ. He played six games with the team, including a First Round US Open Cup match and multiple regular season games.

After the NPSL regular season, Allen was signed by the Philadelphia Union for the remainder of 2019. But he never took the field, appearing on the bench 14 times, and retired at the end of the season due to lingering injuries.

The NPSL, and even USL League Two, are proven venues for both young talent and players looking to raise their own stock. While that won’t always result in an MLS contract, there are other leagues looking for talent. And Allen knows this.

RJ Allen with the New Jersey United coaching staff and club owner Faton Bauta | Courtesy New Jersey United AC

“For a lot of players, the goal across the summer, obviously, is to play on a team that is competitive. Being a part of a winning culture and most importantly, healthy and fit going into their seasons. That for me is the most important to get players fit, healthy, and strong for us to be competing and winning games.”

Allen, with his years of experience in both the professional ranks and understanding of the lower divisions, wants to help his players. But their futures also include a playoff match this week — one against a Hartford City foe that New Jersey United has yet to ever beat.

For every player going into Wednesday’s game, Allen hopes he’s given them all the tools they need to win. But the former Major League Soccer player knows at the end of the day it’s up to them to go out there and play.

“I kind of live my life with, a quote that I follow:

‘Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid, do not be discouraged for the Lord, your God will be with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9)’

But also, have no regrets. Have no regrets in anything that you do and leave it all out there… Put your head down, and work hard, and be willing to compete. If you bring the competitive side and there's no doubt that, everything else will fall into place for us as a team and as a unit.”