A hard-won point in El Salvador keeps the New York Red Bulls on course in CONCACAF Champions League. It was not often a pretty game, though Alexander Larin's goal for Alianza will likely be considered one of the goals of the tournament. RBNY had to work hard throughout a match that could have gone either way. The draw suits the Red Bulls, especially after they fell behind to Larin's thundering left foot.
So job well done for Jesse Marsch and his squad: they got the result they came for, and they don't have to travel home wondering if they could have done better if they'd taken the game a little more seriously. They took it plenty seriously, picked a team to try to win that turned out to be only good enough to tie. It was not a polished performance, but it was a professional one.
1. Jesse Marsch made the right decision
The New York Red Bulls had a difficult time in El Salvador, just like Jesse Marsch said they would.
There is an accepted MLS formula for handling the CONCACAF Champions League group stage: play the reserves and whine about scheduling and referees if you lose. RBNY, to its credit, has resisted the temptation to follow that path so far this season.
Despite the fact his team has injury problems and a big game against an old rival coming up at the weekend in MLS, Marsch threw several of his core starters on to the field against Alianza: Luis Robles, Aurelien Collin, Felipe, Bradley Wright-Phillips. That is the spine of the team expected to start against D.C. United on Sunday. Throw in Sean Davis and Sal Zizzo, and there were at least six players kicking off the match in El Salvador who we might reasonably expect to see start in DC. And Gonzalo Veron is a possible seventh.
And when RBNY fell behind in the second half and needed a goal to meet their minimum objective - a draw - Marsch threw in more senior players, and withdrew fringe first-teamers: Sacha Kljestan came on for Shaun Wright-Phillips; new signing Omer Damari replaced Derrick Etienne; Kemar Lawrence stepped in for Justin Bilyeu once the score was tied.
There will be a lot of second-guessing of Marsch's selection for this game based on the outcome of Saturday's match in DC. But if you watched RBNY play Alianza, you know it was a close match and you know the starters were needed. A reserve team would have struggled to contain the Salvadoran side.
Even if the Red Bulls had lost, the decision to field most of their top players was vindicated. The starters were needed just to stay close, let alone win or tie. Marsch said the club is taking CCL seriously, and his lineup proved it.
No one is under any obligation to agree with the head coach's decisions, but his job is to put the players on the field that will get the club the results it needs. And he did exactly that in El Salvador.
2. Alianza's stars showed up
The two best-known players in the Salvadoran club's squad are Rodolfo Zelaya and Alexander Larin. They combined to score the go-ahead goal. Zelaya won a free kick with his trademark close control on theball (he dribbled across the back line, then tried to chip the defense and drew a handball). Larin did the rest.
Perfect free kick.
That threat will presumably show up at Red Bull Arena for Alianza's return match in this CCL group. The Red Bulls were certainly aware of it before they got on the plane to El Salvador. Now we all are.
3. Omer Damari's first goal for RBNY
Omer Damari has had a shot at making his mark with RBs Leipzig and Salzburg. It didn't work out. He's assumed to clocking time with RBNY because it is preferable to playing with Leipzig's reserves, and because there's a chance he does enough to win himself a transfer out of the Red Bull soccer family in the January window.
The latter point is his incentive to make the best of his time here. That and the fact he's a proven goal scorer with a strong record at international level, and he presumably enjoys the feeling of being good at what he does.
It took Damari four minutes in CCL to get Red Bulls fans to enjoy the feeling of him being good at what he does. His 67th-minute equalizer was little more than a tap-in, but it was exactly what it is hoped he will for RBNY while he is here: boost the attack with veteran intelligence and a poacher's instincts.
He might be RB Leipzig's cast-off, but he's RBNY's CCL savior. His first goal for his third Red Bull club was crucial to keeping his new team's CONCACAF Champions League campaign on track. If all his goals for RBNY are that important, he won't have to score many to become a fan favorite. And Ali Curtis might well be asking for permission to hang on to his first synergy signing a little longer.
"Excuse me, Mr. Ralf, sir. Can we keep Omer? We promise we'll play with him and walk him and never complain. Please please please." #RBNY— Fuck PRO Referee (@MetroCapo) August 17, 2016