Alex Muyl won't forget Guatemala City in a hurry.
Game recap incase you missed it, on to the next round of Champions league and we could'nt be more happy! @Alexmuyl19 #RBNY pic.twitter.com/J1McsDSwzE— Aaron Long (@A_LoLo12) September 28, 2016
Nor will the New York Red Bulls, because they clinched a CCL quarterfinal berth with a 0-0 draw in Guatemala City - and celebrated the historic achievement with appropriate gravitas.
When they don't let you hang your banner, @NewYorkRedBulls are there to hold it up for you. #ESCOnTour #RBNY pic.twitter.com/e6eu0U3XGP— Empire SC (@EmpireSC) September 28, 2016
On to the next round! But first, three thoughts...
1. CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals!
As soon as RBNY won the 2015 Supporters' Shield it acquired a new priority: qualify for the quarterfinals of the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League. It is not the only priority of this season, but it is the privilege of successful clubs - or those that want to be successful - to compete on several fronts every year.
The quarterfinals have been reached, for the first time in RBNY's short history with this competition: a measure of success can already be attributed to this season.
The 0-0 draw on a wet night in Guatemala City was not pretty, but the Red Bulls have been in similar situations and been overawed by the modest task of not choking on their own ambition on a foreign field.
The job that needed to be done has been done, in the simplest way to do it: win at home and draw on the road. RBNY had a manageable group, but not an easy one. Completing four games without a loss and with only one goal conceded is testament to how well the team has managed its priorities and not allowed this one to slip.
And now the Red Bulls have a fresh priority for next season: qualify for the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
2. Luis Robles
The match was played in awful conditions. The field was soaking wet and strewn with puddles. It was difficult for either side to maintain any sort of passing rhythm. But a wet field means an uneven bounce (if there is a bounce at all) and a wet ball. The conditions were potentially a nightmare for both 'keepers.
Antigua's 'keeper, the experienced Costa Rican Victor Bolivar, confronted the nightmare early in the game. Both Gonzalo Veron and Mike Grella created good scoring chances by pressing high and exploiting the unpredictable passage of the ball across the saturated field.
THAT. CLOSE. @MikeGrella10 mere inches from assisting the opener.#AGFCvNY#SCCL#RBNY pic.twitter.com/8XoR7CtMmA— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) September 28, 2016
Antigua had their own chances, and did not hesitate to shoot from distance when the chance was there. The tactic was clear: fire in a wet ball at the 'keeper and seek to tap in the rebound. But Luis Robles was in commanding form.
He played the conditions perfectly. Charging out to clear or control the ball if it slipped past the back line, making a couple of stand-out saves, and - crucially - holding on to every shot he could. He didn't spill or drop a single shot, and the second ball Antigua wanted to tap in never arrived.
The one occasion he was clearly beaten - by a smart cross to the back post - the Antigua forwards got in their own way and blocked the shot.
The clean sheet was crucial. The Red Bulls were clear and comfortable favorites to make the quarterfinals: all they had to do was not lose by three goals. But with the ball not going in at the other end, a goal conceded might have fatally tipped RBNY into the inadequate defensive posture we've seen the team fall into too often this season. You know the one: the one that turns two-goal leads into 2-2 ties.
We never had to worry about Antigua finding the encouragement of even a single goal, because Luis Robles did not let anything get past him.
3. The best of Jesse Marsch, and the worst of him
On the one hand, Jesse Marsch must be applauded for his management of his squad for the entirety of this CCL run, and this match in particular. He risked several first-choice starters on a shabby field against increasingly desperate opposition. Injuries to Justin Bilyeu (subbed out before half-time after a jarring blow to the head) and Alex Muyl (bloodied by a stray elbow while challenging for a 50/50 ball in the air) illustrated the point: a player can go down at any time.
Totally legal, apparently.#RBNY#SCCL#AGFCvNY pic.twitter.com/kFUXgeNzNc— Eric Giacometti (@Eric_Giacometti) September 28, 2016
He could have put out a starting lineup that did not include Luis Robles, Aurelien Collin, and Felipe. He could have protected those three key players for the team's remaining MLS games. But he correctly predicted this would be a game that required maximum concentration at the back. Robles, as mentioned, was immense. Collin was an essential partner for the inexperienced Aaron Long in the center of defense. Felipe's competitive guile (he has never seen incidental contact he couldn't milk for a delay in the game, if needed) helped manage the tempo of the match.
And when Jesse went to his bench, it was for more starters. Kemar Lawrence came in for the injured Bilyeu and immediately strengthened the back line.
You're not getting by @kemarkemar24 tonight. #AGFCvNY #SCCL #RBNY pic.twitter.com/UdVom2eY9e— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) September 28, 2016
Alex Muyl replaced Shaun Wright-Phillips in the 62nd minute. Bradley Wright-Phillips subbed in for Gonzalo Veron in the 76th minute.
Fine: Jesse wanted to win this game. He brought fresh legs in to key positions to sustain the hunt for a goal.
But...Veron was RBNY's most potent threat on the night. Of all the players on the field, he demonstrated the best understanding of how to get the ball to move at pace, to create the sort of pressure on a defense that forces errors and opens gaps in the back line. BWP's greatest asset is his movement off the ball. With passes sticking in the mud, there wasn't a lot of off-the-ball moving to do. It seemed a backward step, and it proved to be: absent Veron, RBNY lost its primary creative threat on the night and the task of finding a goal became a little harder.
All told, it was a reminder of the best of Marsch's current coaching habits and the worst of them. He knows his squad and has been eking out competitive lineups all season, under the near-constant inconvenience of injuries to key players at key positions. He has consistently said he wants the team to do well in CCL, and his approach to these games has echoed his words: he generally sets the team up to be positive for 90 minutes, more often than he does in MLS it seems.
But when it comes time to make substitutions, in any competition, too often Jesse's big idea to change the game is predictable and ineffective. Subbing in your top scorer when you want a goal is not a bad plan. Subbing out your most obvious creative threat, however, is not a great idea. Veron and BWP might have tortured the Antigua defense. Veron or BWP was a more manageable proposition.
Even BWP's determined run at the end of the game illustrated the problem of Veron's absence. In the last minute, the RBNY striker made a run that put Antigua's defense on its heels. But the problem BWP always has when he is in creative mode is he cannot pass to himself - and he is the team's most reliable finisher. Having done the hard work, he could only watch as the defense collapsed around the shooters, and a scuffed goal-bound shot was cleared.
Hindsight is, of course, always 20/20. Someone knocks in BWP's pass and the words above don't get written. Maybe Veron had an injury and needed to leave the field anyway. Maybe Marsch simply wanted to refresh his lineup to keep Antigua pinned back and far away from the Red Bulls' goal.
In the end, the desired result was achieved and that is all that matters. Marsch will have the whole off-season to tweak his squad and come up with the game plan that we all hope will see RBNY to further success in this edition of CCL.