CONCACAF Champions League! New York Red Bulls vs. Club Deportivo Futbolistas Asociados Santanecos!
Yeah, it is a bit of a mouthful.
Fine: let's call it RBNY vs. FAS in CCL. Better? Great. Let's see what might lie ahead in this international clash of acronyms.
Here's what we know:
- Everyone is tired
Concerned about how Mike Petke handles his squad's second game in four days?
He'll rotate, no doubt. And there are fresh-legged players to choose from: RBNY may be playing its second match in 96 hours, but it is also only the club's second match since August 10th.
FAS is not so lucky: the Salvadoran team played on Saturday (August 23rd) - just like RBNY - and on the preceding Wednesday (against the Red Bulls' last MLS opponent, Montreal), and on the Saturday before that (August 16th). Oh, Los Tigres had a game on August 10th too.
Is the schedule a little wearing for RBNY? Sure. But it's been an exhausting stretch for FAS, who also have to run the gauntlet of the North American immigration system.
Back on August 5th (yes, the Salvadorans have been busy this month - Tuesday's game against RBNY will be their seventh since starting their season on August 2nd), FAS played L'Impact in Montreal with just 14 players, since that was all the players Canada's border control apparently was willing to allow entry to the country. Los Tigres didn't even have a reserve 'keeper on the bench.
The visitors on Tuesday might not be the players best able to handle the challenge of a soccer game on foreign soil, they might simply be the players best able to satisfy US visa requirements.
And they'll likely be at least as tired as whoever suits up for the home team.
- RBNY can afford not to win
The CCL group stage challenges a team to win a three-team group. The group winner goes through to the quarterfinals; the other two teams go home to figure out whether their cable package includes whatever obscure corner of the Fox Sports universe is screening the latter stages of the tournament.
The Red Bulls are getting started a little late, so Group 3 (comprising RBNY, Montreal Impact and FAS) had to get going without us. L'Impact and FAS played each other twice, Montreal won both matches, and hence the group standings show the Canadian club with six points and the Salvadorans level with us on zero points.
But don't be deceived: this opening game of the four-match CCL group stage is not a must-win for RBNY. If the Red Bulls get eight points out their games in CCL, no other team in the group can reach a higher total.
Eight points is two wins and two draws.
RBNY should want to win this game: it is against the presumed weakest team in the group, and that team will be banged up and on the road. And the Red Bulls should be gunning for more than simply qualifying: they should want as many points as possible to try to get a preferential seeding for the next round, which will bring a modest home advantage (the second leg of a two-leg series staged in Harrison).
But RBNY does not technically need to win this game. A draw will do to keep on course for eight points. And a draw against FAS will not be nearly as costly as against Montreal, who can reach eight points themselves merely by twice stifling RBNY. Beating Montreal is much more important than beating FAS.
- RBNY cannot afford to lose
Losing would be a problem.
RBNY can get out of this group with seven points. It could get out of the group with six points. But those scenarios - and even getting out of the group with nine points - will rely on goal difference or other tiebreakers (goals scored; away goals). Even eight points could come down to tiebreakers, which is why RBNY is going to need to beat Montreal at least once.
Two wins (of which one must be over Montreal) and two draws keeps RBNY from falling into the uncertainty of needing not just results (you always need results) but very particular results by the right number of goals.
If RBNY wants to coast through this group with no more than the minimum amount of effort or energy, it needs at least a point out of this game.
Here's what we don't know:
- Are we up for this?
Not the fans. Full disclosure: I am a CCL zealot. But not an evangelist. Some RBNY fans care about CCL, some don't, some actively hate it. Fandom is a broad church - we know this.
What we don't know is the team's true interest in CCL, and we won't until the players hit the pitch.
Remember US Open Cup? Sorry to bring it up, but it's relevant: that too is a tournament that isn't MLS Cup. That too is a tournament that Mike Petke said he was interested in (and he's said he's interested in CCL). And while all the right things were said about USOC, the team was one-and-done, played off the field by a much more motivated opponent. And the lineup against the Cosmos wasn't bad at all. It was just a group of players who weren't up for the fight.
FAS might be exhausted and a long way from home, but expect the players who do have the right stamps in their passports to be motivated. If RBNY's players are not, then one bad call or a freak goal - and it'll be a long night.
- Do Richard Eckersley, Armando, and Bobby Convey have a future at this club?
This game is a shot at redemption for a number of players who were once among Petke's first-choice selection, but have drifted out of the starting lineup for a variety of reasons.
Kosuke Kimura might arguably be included in this group as well, but - for me - he's always been a utility player on this team, and his contribution to the Shield campaign should count for something. No one has ever rated Kimura particularly highly, but he's a bona fide MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield winner, and he's still a guy Petke has turned to in a time of great need quite recently (he came off the bench to help kill the game against the Revs). He's a hard-working man who doesn't let his limitations get in the way of giving his all, which is how he has found the not inconsiderable success he's achieved in his career: that is Petke's sort of player because that is the sort of player Petke was.
But Richard Eckersley hasn't been trusted to do anything since his calamitous start to the season. Bobby Convey's biggest contribution to the season so far has been to unsettle Jonny Steele and clear a path for Ambroise Oyongo's development. And Mike Petke hasn't said so explicitly, but he has made a comment or two which suggests he simply can't risk playing Armando in MLS, because the league has got it into its head that he's a reckless player and will ref him into oblivion if he does anything more than stand still.
These are established professionals who will presumably be shipped out in the off-season to find better situations for themselves at other clubs. Unless one or all of them is handed a shot at redemption in CCL.
Of course, it is one thing to be given a shot and another one to take it. If any of these guys get a start on Tuesday, it's on them to turn it into something good.
- How much has Saer Sene still got?
The newest Red Bull is still only 27, but he's had a rough time with injuries, which have derailed him at just about every moment when it appeared he might be about to fulfill his potential.
As a younger man, he recovered from the disappointment of not making the grade at Paris Saint-Germain (he was in PSG's youth system) by scoring many goals in lower leagues around Europe. That got him a shot with Bayern Munich: at 22, he was in Bayern's 2009-10 Champions League squad (one or two promising young players often are) and scoring pretty heavily for the reserve team.
He got hurt, missed a season, and ended up in MLS at New England Revolution - where he announced himself to the league by scoring 11 goals in 25 appearances in 2012. That season ended with an ACL injury, and he picked up another big injury at the end of 2013. By the time he was recovered, the team had pretty much moved on.
So he's at RBNY, as a man who has already proven he can be a top goal scorer in MLS, but now has to prove himself again.