On Saturday, September 24, the New York Red Bulls clinched their spot in the 2017 MLS playoffs. On Tuesday, September 27, it was time to go after a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals berth. And that required a trip to Guatemala to play Antigua GFC on a wet, murky, midweek night.
It was 90-minutes of hard-fought soccer played on a steadily deteriorating swamp. The field was an active opponent for both sides.
But RBNY prevailed, taking the point required to clinch qualification for the quarterfinals. There is no need to worry about what FIFA decides to do to Guatemalan soccer on October 1; no need to fret over whether Antigua beats Alianza if the final game of this group is allowed to happen. The Red Bulls are into the knockout rounds of the 2016-17 CCL.
The team never really played for the draw. Early in the first half, the Red Bulls had two solid chances to get a goal. Perhaps the best was created by Mike Grella, who clipped the ball along the near side of the end line back to Gonzalo Veron to tap in. The goal was waved off, but the replay suggested that maybe a fraction of the ball didn't cross the end line. It was a close one.
Veron watched a chip at goal drift just wide, and Bradley Wright-Phillips made a last-minute effort to single-handedly wreck Antigua's back line. But the Guatemalan side held out to keep its visitors scoreless.
At the other end, Luis Robles made the job of controlling a slick ball look easy. He made some excellent saves and some very good decisions, but his best work was in simply keeping hold of the ball in clutch moments when Antigua was ready to pounce for the rebound.
There was a scary moment for Red Bulls defender Justin Bilyeu: challenging for the ball late in the first half,he clashed heads with Antigua's Agustin Herrera and it didn't look good. He had to leave the field and Kemar Lawrence subbed in for him. Bilyeu's fitness - the injury looked very much like a possible concussion - will now be added to the list of RBNY's concerns about its first-team squad.
But every player who participated in this game can celebrate their contribution to Red Bulls history: a first-ever CCL quarterfinal will be played in February thanks to the work put in on a soggy field in September. And now RBNY must return its focus to MLS. The Philadelphia Union is next up, as the Red Bulls seek to finish out the regular season with the necessary momentum (and points) to make the best of another shot at MLS Cup.