CONCACAF Champions League is back this week. For the New York Red Bulls that means a home game against El Salvador's Alianza on September 15.
The Salvadorans were challenging opponents on their home ground. But the same experience that suggests MLS teams will find away-days to be difficult in CCL also predicts that clubs from the smaller nations of CONCACAF can struggle with trips to play in the USA. The logistical challenges of long-distance travel are greater for teams that typically have smaller budgets and staffs than the average MLS club.
So Alianza at Red Bull Arena is not expected to be the same test as Alianza in El Salvador. Nonetheless, it is a team with some talented, international-class players and RBNY will be well advised not to tempt fate by treating their opponent with anything but respect.
The CCL group stage is as generally easy or as difficult for MLS teams as they choose to make it for themselves. And most often when it gets difficult for MLS teams, it is because they have chosen to treat it as though it will be easy.
Under Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis, RBNY has tended to put out strong lineups in all the competitions it plays in. So while concessions must be made to the limits of human endurance - senior players cannot simply run for ever without adequate rest - the roster has been built to try to compete for multiple trophies throughout the season.
Injuries have thinned the squad and RBNY does not have the luxury of allowing its MLS campaign to falter while it focuses on CCL. There will likely be a lot of players from the second tier of RBNY's roster in this game, and probably some players from the second team (NYRB II) as well. But that second tier includes Designated Player Gonzalo Veron, MLS-starter-in-waiting Ryan Meara, and former England international Shaun Wright-Phillips.
The week should reveal more about RBNY's intentions for this game, and the available players who will be tasked with delivering what is required (a win; a win is required). Until then, here is a catch-up with Alianza.
What they've done since we last saw them:
The big news is Alianza changed head coaches at the end of August. It has only played two games since, yielding a draw and a big home win in the league. It's a little early to say whether the coaching change is what the team needed, and it looks a little late for the change to have much impact on the club's CCL prospects. It has a very big task ahead if it is to make it out of the group stage.
What they need to do against RBNY
This is how the group looks at the moment:
The most important tiebreakers in CCL are head-to-head results, so Alianza's minimum requirement to stay alive in the group is to match the result RBNY achieved in El Salvador: tie 1-1.
Simply put, Alianza has to get a score draw to retain any hope of making the next round. Lose, and it is out of the tournament. Tie 0-0, and it loses any potential tiebreaker with RBNY: it is out of the tournament.
Of course, Alianza would prefer to win, since that would put it in control of its destiny. A tie means it needs Antigua's help to get by RBNY. But a win means it can qualify without doubt by going to Guatemala and beating Antigua in October.
Easier said than done, of course. Drawing both its home games means Alianza needs positive results on the road - and that is a difficult task in CCL. Winning both road games when it couldn't win at home would be a very unusual turnaround in form.
For RBNY, the objective is to win and make qualification almost certain, but any result that isn't a loss keeps the Red Bulls safely on track for the quarterfinals.
Player to watch
Alexander Larin, still. His left foot at a set piece is Alianza's most significant potential game-changer, as RBNY knows too well.
And Mexico's national team can attest to the same.
That Panenka came during the most recent round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, and briefly had El Salvador beating El Tri in San Salvador.
Larin has picked up a goal for Alianza since also. If his ability was a secret (he's on loan to Alianza from UANL Tigres - he has been on the radar of the region's bigger clubs for a while), it is no longer.