Alianza FC challenged the New York Red Bulls down in El Salvador on the first occasion these teams met in CONCACAF Champions League. It was a tough game for RBNY. They came home with a point and a better understanding of their opponent. The return leg, however, brought a fresh challenge: a new head coach for Alianza, Milton Melendez, and a team reinvigorated by the desire to impress him in only his third match in charge.
Alianza proved hard to subdue at Red Bull Arena, but RBNY finally pulled away with a last-minute goal to snatch the win, 1-0. Sacha Kljestan found space to deliver the decisive strike that beat 'keeper Oscar Arroyo. Gonzalo Veron delivered the pass, drawing defenders toward his run and cutting the ball back for Kljestan to clip a left-footed shot into the net.
"I think they are a pretty strong opponent and they posed a very big threat to us tonight on the counter attack. They were very organized and very tuned in tonight," said Kljestan, "Fortunately, we were able to create a few chances tonight and stay with the game plan and try to get three points at the end."
It was a gritty game that tested the nerve and resolve of both sides. Alianza showed toughness to stand up to the RBNY press, and get up the field to test the back line on several occasions. In the first half, it was 'keeper Oscar Arroyo who was the standout, producing some brilliant saves to keep his side in the game.
But in the second half it was Robles who was the busier of the two goalkeepers, and he made some huge stops to keep the visitors off the scoreboard.
Not on @luisrobles1984's watch.#NYvALI#SCCL#RBNY pic.twitter.com/Ojam8vwKnn— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) September 16, 2016
We're in good hands.@luisrobles1984#NYvALI#SCCL#RBNY pic.twitter.com/FndqPR6tMv— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) September 16, 2016
For Robles playing in the match down in San Salvador was an advantage.
"The first time we played against them there was a degree of uncertainty, we weren't entirely sure of how they want to play," said Luis Robles, "We were surprised at how defensive they were. So coming into this leg, we expected them to be more defensive and counter. They got some chances in the second half on the counter."
Jesse Marsch must have been very frustrated with how the match played out. RBNY got solid chances on frame, but Arroyo repeatedly got to them, and Alianza was ready to break forward whenever possible.
"We're trying to make calculated decisions on how to use our roster the right way and go after this tournament in a big way, but also make sure that we continue to push hard in the league. We put some different bodies on the field today, and it's good for them to get some big experiences," said Marsch, "Alianza is a very good team. They were organized, dangerous on the counter. They fought more, they got to second balls more, but as the game went on we got more control on the game and when Sacha came on he made a difference and we got the three points."
In four CONCACAF Champions League group stage home matches, the Red Bulls are undefeated at Red Bull Arena with three wins and a draw. They have also defeated two Salvadoran sides in that run: CD FAS two years ago, and now Alianza.
With this victory the Red Bulls have seven points from three games in this year's CCL. There is one left: a trip to Guatemala to face Antigua GFC. The Guatemalan club might not get to complete its group stage - there is a suspension looming over FEDEFUT, the national soccer federation - but the match against RBNY is currently expected to be played.
The argument between FIFA and FEDEFUT will probably continue to cast uncertainty over Antigua's involvement with CCL up to and beyond RBNY's scheduled trip to Guatemala. But for the Red Bulls, what counts most is that they are all but qualified for the next round. Antigua has a remote mathematical chance of easing past RBNY, which can be extinguished with a draw in Guatemala, or even just limiting a loss to less than a three-goal margin. The Red Bulls will want to charge, rather than limp, into the quarterfinals - but they are almost there.