Fifteen minutes into this match and it was absolutely clear the New York Red Bulls would win it. Seventy-five minutes later, when Sacha Kljestan struck the 90th-minute goal that all but assured RBNY's passage to the next round of CONCACAF Champions League, what had unfolded was one of the most nail-biting, dominant home wins of the Red Bulls' tenure at Red Bull Arena.
If you said you knew that last-minute winner was coming, you're deluding yourself. The 1-0 win was deserved for the extended passages of heavy pressure on Alianza's goal; it was also entirely undeserved because Alianza held firm, fought back and made the Red Bulls sweat through several close calls in front of their own net. And it was unexpected because by the 90th minute of a back-and-forth game the only obvious truth was that neither team could score. And then Kljestan scored.
Three thoughts on what is almost certainly the game that put RBNY into the CCL quarterfinals for the first time in its history...
1. Gonzalo Veron had a big night
RBNY's under-used Designated Player got the start and almost got his team off to a flyer- repeatedly. In the first 15 minutes, the Red Bulls could have - should have - been up 3-0, and Veron was at the heart of most of the action as Alianza seemed bewildered by the high press.
By the end of the first half, he was arguably RBNY's greatest scoring and creative threat. And perhaps that dual role predicted his slow drift to the periphery in the second half. As Alianza grew more confident about playing around the press and breaking into space, the Argentine became less influential, mostly because he was seeing a lot less of the ball and perhaps being asked too often to be Bradley Wright-Phillips rather than Gonzalo Veron.
But Jesse Marsch, frequently criticized for conservative or predicable substitutions also had a big night on the sidelines. His mid-game tweaks did substantively alter the game. With his team increasingly on its heels, around the hour mark, Marsch swapped in Kljestan for Tyler Adams, and Chris Duvall for Aurelien Collin.
The latter move was counter-intuitive: Aaron Long had been struggling to contain Rodolfo Zelaya for most of the night; Alianza was attacking relatively freely down the right flank; Collin had seemed to be the only thing really holding the back line together. More counter-intuitive still: Marsch appeared to shuffle the formation, switching to a three-man defense. Giving more space to Zelaya - whose one flaw was a lack of sufficient pace to get behind the line - seemed reckless. The back line did bend, but it not break. It worked.
A four-man midfield did a better job of confronting the Alianza attack early and controlling space on the edge of the final third. Especially once Marsch was forced by injury to Justin Bilyeu to bring Kemar Lawrence into the game. The speed of New York's Taxi and his willingness to stop a break by whatever means necessary (costing him a yellow card, eventually) gave the Red Bulls further opportunity to get back on the front foot.
There was more space at the back and Alianza had some good opportunities denied, but Marsch clearly wanted goals out of this game and he set his team up to keep going after them until the final whistle. That mindset was rewarded at the end, in part because Kljestan's arrival encouraged Veron to find wider positions. And he started to reassert himself as the game moved into its closing minutes.
79: @SachaKljestan chip, Veron header... but pushed away by Alianza's keep at the last moment— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) September 16, 2016
88: Veron crossed to @SachaKljestan, but can't find the back of the net— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) September 16, 2016
Nominally the lone striker in the formation at the start, it was no accident the goal came from Veron playing wide-man. With Kljestan on the field, a better chemistry seemed to find its way into RBNY's play in the final third. And Veron found his way to his favorite move: he has a great affection for driving the ball - and the back line - to the byline and the cutting back for the late runner.
Kljestan took the chance very well, but he had space because Veron had taken Alianza's entire defense with him on his run.
Veron had a very good night, and would have won the game in the first half but for one thing...
2. ...Oscar Arroyo had the best night
The Alianza 'keeper also had the worst night because he was the clear man of the match after 15 minutes, sustained that level of play through to the end of the game - and lost because his defense abandoned him at the last.
But before RBNY's goal undermined Arroyo's heroic performance, he had earned himself a clean sheet. Sadly for him, he didn't get it. But he was the man of the match and the star of the game's highlight reel.
3. Here come the quarterfinals
It will take something quite unlikely for RBNY to miss out on the next round. Alianza is officially eliminated from the tournament by the loss in Harrison, but the Red Bulls are not technically qualified because they could yet be caught by Antigua.
There are two problems for Antigua, however. First, the Guatemalan side will need to beat RBNY by at least three goals (four, if RBNY score an away goal) to wrest back the tiebreaker advantage from the MLS side. And even if that happens, it seems unlikely Antigua will get to play its second home game of the tournament.
Currently, Guatemala's federation - FEDEFUT - is looking at a suspension by FIFA on October 1. Unless FIFA and FEDEFUT resolve their differences, Antigua will be withdrawn from CCL as a consequence of the pending suspension. And FIFA's demand looks a little difficult for FEDEFUT: world football's governing body wants the "Tribunal de Honor de la Confederacion Deportiva Autonoma de Guatemala" to reverse its decision to suspend the FIFA-appointed "normalization committee" that is actually running Guatemalan soccer at the moment.
To summarize the dispute that must be resolved for Antigua to be able to celebrate an unlikely victory over RBNY on September 27 by trying for another win on October 18:
- FEDEFUT doesn't run Guatemalan soccer, the FIFA normalization committee does
- An autonomous, constitutionally-mandated body (CDAG) has suspended the FIFA normalization committee in Guatemala
- FEDEFUT, which does not really run Guatemalan soccer, must try to get the CDAG (which it does not control) to reverse its decision, or Guatemalan soccer goes dark for a while.
Antigua wasn't a great bet to win its last two games in CCL even before its shot at even playing twice more in CCL became dependent on a FIFA challenge to the authority of Guatemala's Constitution.
RBNY is in full control of its destiny. Don't lose to Antigua in Guatemala, and it is through. Don't lose by three goals or more, and it is through. And even if it loses 5-0, Antigua might not get the chance to pursue its advantage into the match against Alianza it would need to win to deny RBNY a quarterfinal place.
Start thinking about what the CONCACAF Champions League knockout rounds might hold for the Red Bulls.