As soon as the New York Red Bulls won the 2015 Supporters' Shield they were headed for the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League. And I have been excited to see who they would be playing ever since. Last season was the second time in the past three year that RBNY has won the MLS regular season title, so this year is the second time in the past three seasons the team has had a berth in CONCACAF's club championship.
The memory of RBNY's 2014-15 CCL campaign is not so distant, but in case you have forgotten: the Red Bulls drew CD FAS of El Salvador and the Montreal Impact of Canada (and MLS) in the group stage. A solid 2-0 home win over FAS was followed by a one goal loss at Montreal, and than a scoreless draw in El Salvador that eliminated RBNY from the competition.The Red Bulls' most recent CCL game was a meaningless home match-up against the Impact that ended in a draw. Montreal went on a run all the way to the tournament final; RBNY's destination was the most emotionally charged off-season the club has experienced since moving to Red Bull Arena - perhaps ever.
This time around, the draw has once again delivered a Salvadoran opponent: Alianza, the 2015 Apertura champion of El Salvador's top flight. RBNY's other opponent in Group F of this tournament is Antigua FC, the 2015 Apertura champion of Guatemala.
This will be Alianza's second appearance in CCL, but the club won the CONCACAF Champions' Cup (essentially, this tournament before it rebranded itself) back in 1967. The team's first trip to CCL was a short one: it was bounced out of the 2011-12 edition in the preliminary round by FC Dallas.
Antigua has never been to CCL before, but a Guatemalan team made it out of the group stage in the 2009-10 (Comunicaciones) and 2012-13 (Xelaju) editions of the tournament.
Jesse Marsch and his coaching staff now know the opponents they must scout to ensure RBNY is well prepared for the challenge of winning its CCL and advancing to the quarterfinals (which will be played in late February). And that is a challenge the Red Bulls have yet to master. This is RBNY's third appearance in CCL and hopefully it will be the first time the club makes it past the first hurdle of this competition.
In the 2009-10 edition, the Red Bulls arrived in CCL on the back of their best-ever playoff run (they were the 2008 MLS Cup runners-up) and in the midst of one of their worst ever regular seasons (2009 was bad). Drawn against Trinidad & Tobago's W Connection in the preliminary round, there was reason to hope the regional tournament might offer some relief from a miserable run in MLS.
The Red Bulls converted two precious away goals in the first leg, and left Trinidad with a 2-2 draw. Back at Giants Stadium for the home leg, John Wolyniec put RBNY ahead on aggregate, but W. Connection found a way to break the home fans' hearts by scoring two away goals of their own and advancing on aggregate, 4-3. In this year's CCL there was a shot at revenge but the group stage draw sent W Connection to play in Group A.
W Connection is a team I would have liked to see us play, but I was relieved when the draw kept RBNY away from the Vancouver Whitecaps. Since the Canadian club joined MLS the Red Bulls haven't beaten them in league action. There have been three draws, but the last three matches have all gone Vancouver's way. RBNY will get the chance to address that record in early September in MLS, but avoiding the 'Caps in CCL is probably for the best.
Another potentially strong opponent the Red Bulls were likely pleased to avoid is Costa Rica's Saprissa, but I was a little disappointed to see us deprived of the chance to welcome Roy Miller back to Red Bull Arena. After the Red Bulls declined to give Miller a new contract at the end of last season, the left back returned to his home country and signed with the Dragons of San Jose, Costa Rica.
We could have had two games against a side featuring a former Red Bulls player, which might have played well in the press both here and in Costa Rica. The early stages of this tournament often seem to lack drama, so maybe Roy's return to RBA would have been a good thing for the competition and a reason for RBNY fans to go catch a CCL game live.
So let's breathe a sigh of relief to have sidestepped Vancouver, feel a bit disappointed to have missed out on the chance to settle a score with W Connection, and balance the mixed feelings that come from losing out on a good story if Saprissa was coming to town. The field is set for the 2016-17 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League, and we have only to wait until August to see what Antigua and Alianza have to offer.