On February 22, the New York Red Bulls and Vancouver Whitecaps will play the first leg of their 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. It will be the first competitive game of their respective seasons, and possibly the most important, depending on how the rest of the year goes for both teams.
As such, CCL is believed to have been an important factor in determining the preseason plans of both clubs. The 'Caps put their schedule together early. At the beginning of December, Vancouver announced a trip to Wales followed by a warm-up tournament in Portland. Subsequently, Vancouver has revealed it will play friendlies against Bristol City, Cardiff City, and Oxford United while in the UK.
For its part, RBNY is taking a different approach to preparing for its big CCL season-opener. First, the Red Bulls are not at all in support of Vancouver's radical transparency with regard to preseason. While the 'Caps recklessly laid out their schedule for all to see in December, RBNY kept their plans under wraps - even when other teams started to publish schedules that more or less made plain what it was the Red Bulls would be doing in January and February.
Finally, on the cusp of the official start of preseason, RBNY released an official schedule. Well, it released half an official schedule. The other half is effectively out there too, and it includes a clue to the Red Bulls' motivation for perhaps being a little reticent about preseason this year: the team has double-booked itself for February 22 - it's due to play a friendly in Arizona against Houston on the same day it starts its actual season at Red Bull Arena with the CCL game against Vancouver.
RBNY will doubtless figure out how to play simultaneous games in different time zones. And while some of the details may still be a little unclear, we do know the team is in Arizona for a preseason camp that will run until February 4, and it plans to return for a second stint on February 8.
On the opening day of preseason, Jesse Marsch provided some of the rationale behind the decision to take RBNY's training camps to the desert this year:
"We originally went to Arizona this year in case we might draw a Central American or Mexican opponent in the first round of CCL," Marsch told RBNY's comms team, confirming that preseason had indeed been planned with CCL in mind - just not the CCL that CCL had in mind for RBNY.
"We draw Vancouver, but the good thing about being there - we knew in case we drew an MLS opponent is that there are a lot of MLS teams down there. So we'll be able to get after it with good competition right away," he continued.
Recently, RBNY has made a habit of going to Florida for its preseason. The trips to Arizona are a break from that norm, at least. Marsch sees specific benefit to the schedule with regard to CCL: the team will play three MLS teams in its first camp. Though the second segment of the preseason schedule is not yet confirmed, it is believed to also include a run at several MLS opponents. And RBNY will, of course, be facing a team from MLS in its first competitive game of the year.
"In years past, we've kind of played a college team, then maybe a second division team, and maybe only one MLS team by the end of the first round of preseason. But now we'll get three good opponents and, you know, I think it'll help us prepare a little bit more for what to expect come February 22," Marsch said, sounding only a little bit like someone trying to make the best of a plan that had gone slightly awry.
As it happens, Vancouver likes to go to Arizona for preseason. While Jesse Marsch was explaining why RBNY was going to Tucson, Whitecaps assistant coach Martyn Pert was explaining why his team was not:
"I think the fact that they're in the middle of their season, they're sharper [in the UK]. We looked at the games down in Tucson and it's been really good going down there and we probably may revisit it at another time. But we need those games where...a little bit sharper, you know? Playing against different opposition so it gives you a little bit more excitement in the game, and also they're in the the middle of their season, so they're not just feeling their way into it - they're a little bit sharper," Pert advised VWFC's beat reporters.
Asked whether the decision to go to Wales rather than Arizona was about preventing players from getting "too comfortable" in the southwestern sun, Pert said, "I don't know if comfortable is the right word for it. I think [going to Arizona] served a good purpose, there's good training facilities down there. I think just the fact that we're looking for that little bit sharper game. We've got a bit game in February that everyone knows about, so we're looking for that little bit more sharpness in our friendly matches."
The Vancouver assistant coach used to work for Cardiff City, so he has some sense of what to expect, at least from that opponent: "The first game [against Cardiff on January 27], it'll be against their under-23s plus a few others. They'll be sharp. The level of play - they'll be good, the quality of the pitch will be good...the tackles, in regards to the physical element of the game, the referee might let a little bit more go than what we're normally used to, so it might be a bit of an eye-opener for us."
So both RBNY and the 'Caps have tweaked their preseason plans to account for CCL. Vancouver has gone to Wales to find a different level and type of competition from its usual preseason fare. For Marsch, RBNY is doing much the same - albeit following a path it decided on with a different CCL opponent in mind, and a path that happens to be the one Vancouver decided to abandon this year.
One of these plans will be that of a CCL semifinalist. We'll find out which one on March 2, after the second leg of the quarterfinal between the Red Bulls and Whitecaps.