CCL: an annual reminder of the bewildering array of Fox Sports channels not included in your cable package, and a fun little soccer tournament if your team is doing well.
Neither the Red Bulls nor CD FAS could be said to be doing well in CCL at the moment, but there are a few matters to be settled nonetheless. Here's a look at what's on the line in their second ConcaChampions clash...
Here's what we know:
- The Red Bulls need the win
It's been a pretty good group stage for most MLS teams in CONCACAF Champions League. D.C. United and Portland Timbers are still in the hunt for maximum points. So too is RBNY's group-mate, Montreal Impact. Sporting Kansas City had the toughest draw of any MLS club in this year's CCL, and is undefeated in group play with one game remaining.
Only one MLS club has lost so far in CCL: the New York Red Bulls. And only one MLS club absolutely HAS to win in this round of the tournament: the New York Red Bulls.
To get out of the group, RBNY's only route is to win this game against FAS and the next one against Montreal - this will give the Red Bulls nine points from their group matches, which would tie L'Impact's total. If RBNY wins those games by sufficient margin to get the edge on Montreal on tiebreakers, RBNY is in the quarterfinals.
It's not win or go home for RBNY, because we already know the team is not going home. It is heading to LA as soon as this game is over. But it is win or count CCL as another opportunity lost because the team couldn't get the points it needed in the league early enough to allow it to effectively contest more than one tournament this season.
- Don't fret about goal difference: the win is all that counts
So we know the Red Bulls can only get to the quarterfinals by winning both remaining group games and beating Montreal on tiebreakers.
The first CCL tiebreaker bundle is head-to-head results and goal differentials between the tied teams in the group. This match against CD FAS has no bearing on the head-to-head record between RBNY and L'Impact. The Red Bulls just need any kind of win to keep themselves in the running to catch Montreal's current points total.
The second set of CCL tiebreakers includes overall goal difference in the group. L'Impact's current goal difference is +3. RBNY's current GD is +1.
Two wins for RBNY would deliver a minimum overall GD of +3, and drop L'Impact's to +2 (at least). The Red Bulls will have the edge in overall group difference if they win both remaining matches. Any kind of win against CD FAS will do; then the team needs to worry about getting the right kind of win over Montreal (and the score line will be very important in that game).
The other reason to think about overall goal difference is because it is the first tiebreaker for seedings in the quarterfinals. MLS clubs repeatedly make the mistake in CCL of coasting through the group stage, dropping points and scoring just enough to get by, and ending up in the knockout rounds with a low seed. Higher seeds get home advantage in the next rounds - and higher seeds have won 12 out of 14 match-ups in the CCL knockout rounds since the current format was adopted (only two years, but still...).
Group stage goal difference is an important factor for a team looking to make a deep run in CCL. Smart teams plan accordingly. But RBNY is simply fighting for its CCL life right now. It can only get into the quarterfinals if it gets nine points.
Right now, there aren't many other teams likely to get to the quarterfinals with nine points, so there aren't many teams RBNY can get a tiebreaker advantage over via group stage goal difference.
In Group 2, Sporting KC can get out of the group with seven, eight or 10 points. Saprissa can only reach a maximum of seven points. Neither will tie RBNY to make goal difference a decisive issue with regard to seedings.
It's the same story in Groups 6, 7, and 8: no team with a shot at winning those groups is mathematically capable of getting nine points.
The only teams RBNY might end up tied with are Pachuca, Portland, Olimpia, and D.C. United. Of those three, the Timbers and Los Tuzos already have fat goal differences (+11 and +7 respectively): too far ahead for RBNY to start thinking about catching them now. DC is a long shot to lose either of its remaining games. Olimpia can only progress at Portland's expense, and has a +5 goal difference already.
If the Red Bulls had done a better job of controlling their destiny, and weren't simply chasing two wins just to progress, they ought to be thinking about overall group difference. But they are currently in a situation where it doesn't count for much.
They just need to win, hope to make the quarterfinals, and see where they end up in the seedings when all is settled.
- CD FAS is not good, but it is better at home
Since losing to RBNY in CCL, CD FAS has played two matches: losing one (4-2) to Juventud Independiente; drawing the other (0-0) with Santa Tecla.
The team has won just once in six attempts in its domestic league to date, and that was a 2-1 win over Pasaquina, currently in last place in El Salvador's 10-team top division. CD FAS is ninth at the moment.
It should be noted, however, that Los Tigres are unbeaten at home in league play. They have tied Alianza and Aguila (both 0-0) - for now, the top two teams in the league standings - and that lone league win was at home. They also ran Montreal pretty close in CCL - losing 3-2 - in El Salvador.
CD FAS is not as hapless as its league record might suggest, at least not when it is playing in front of its home crowd.
Here's what we don't know:
- Does Mike Petke understand percentages?
The Red Bulls are going to put their best foot forward in this game. We know this because Petke has spent most of the week telling us so. The club has even let it be known that the players were whisked down to El Salvador on a chartered flight and booked into a "4.5 star hotel". And they brought their own chef (5-star hotels are, I believe, required to have 24-hour room service; the chef is presumably on hand to make sure Ryan Meara can get his 3am pre-game salad). No expense has been spared (assume the 5 star hotel option just wasn't a good fit logistically).
In the course of hammering home the point that RBNY is not giving up on CCL, Petke said he was bringing "90% of the roster" to El Salvador.
Really? There are 28 players on RBNY's current roster. Ninety percent is 25 guys and Thierry Henry's beard clippings. Since Connor Lade is suspended, and Michael Bustamante and Bobby Convey are injured, that would suggest the entire fit roster is traveling.
Maybe Petke just meant 90% of the available squad? That would be 22 players and the part of Luis Robles that really needs a vacation.
CCL only lets 18 players suit up for a match day squad.
Yes, I know, it was a figure of speech, not a meaningful exercise in arithmetic. No point reading too much into it. Though perhaps the next time the club alludes to its persistent inability to figure out its salary cap situation, we might reflect on the head coach's grasp of mathematical principles and consider ourselves forewarned.
- Will Saer Sene start, and can he finish?
Sene ought to start, since he has done in both CCL games to date. But his last outing against Montreal suggested he's not the guy to rely on to make things happen up front. Indeed, his first start for RBNY - against CD FAS at Red Bull Arena - brought one goal and a lot of frustrating missed opportunities.
In an all-or-nothing game, does Mike Petke put his trust in a player who is clearly still not at his best?
- Does Petke stick with the 4-2-3-1?
One thing we know about Mike Petke is that he favors tactical consistency. He will change things if they aren't working, but if he has a formation (or a player named Eric Alexander) that is working, he isn't a fan of changing things up for the sake of a particular situation.
The problem with regard to the current tactical preference was plain to see in RBNY's last CCL game against Montreal.
The 4-2-3-1 is a good way to let Bradley Wright-Phillips play up front, Thierry Henry drop deep, Lloyd Sam run the right wing, and AN Other (Peguy Luyindula in the middle; Ambroise Oyongo on the left) tie the quartet together. Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander cover the defense, and the team seems to play a little better than it did as a 4-4-2.
When Petke sent the reserves out in a 4-2-3-1 against Montreal, it wasn't great. Sene couldn't play the target forward role, and finished up on the right wing. Ruben Bover ran everywhere, and wound up playing as the lone forward. Marius Obekop didn't seem to know where he fit in at all, and Eric Stevenson did his best to get things going with shots from distance and some pretty good set pieces.
If Henry and BWP don't play against CD FAS (as expected), the rationale for the 4-2-3-1 seems lacking.
Sene played well as part of a two-man forward line alongside Tim Cahill in RBNY's opening CCL game. If they once again comprise the main attacking threat (Cahill got limited minutes against Seattle, which suggests he was being held back for a start in midweek; Sene was completely absent from the squad for that game), it would seem sensible to let them continue to develop the partnership they were trying to form the last time they played together.
This, of course, would require Petke to move away from his favored tactic as a one-off attempt to get the best out of the players he has available. And that hasn't really been his style up to this point in his coaching career.