The New York Red Bulls may not start MLS play until March 5th, but for the team and fans, their season starts right now. The Red Bulls have advanced to the quarterfinals of CONCACAF Champions League for the first time in team history. Normally, MLS teams are at a disadvantage since the other CONCACAF clubs they get drawn against have already started their season, catching MLS teams in preseason form. Luckily, RBNY drew a team from its own league: the Vancouver Whitecaps are in the same boat as the Red Bulls.
I caught up with Jon Szekeres from Eight Six Forever to get his take on the first leg of the CCL quarterfinals:
Once a Metro: The Whitecaps only won two of their final 14 games in the 2016 season and ended up missing the playoffs by seven points. What contributed to the second half collapse? At any point, were the fans calling for #RobinsonOut?
Eighty Six Forever: I think Carl Robinson still has a lot of support here, but 2017 will be a true test for his longevity as Whitecaps skipper. The team collapsed last season due to a lack of goals; Robinson and co. were unable to find a number one striker, and players they were depending on to contribute, Pedro Morales, Cristian Techera and Octavio Rivero to name a few, simply didn't. I think Robinson was given a bit of slack for that, although he certainly took his fair share of criticism.
OaM: New York Red Bulls fans were thrown off a bit after hearing that the Whitecaps signed Yordy Reyna from their sister club, RB Salzburg. Usually we are the beneficiaries of transfers/loanees from global Red Bull. How will Reyna fit within the squad?
ESF: I think Reyna is exactly the type of player Carl Robinson likes. He's speedy, shifty, and creative, and should fit in well with fellow speedsters like Kekuta Manneh and Alphonso Davies. The Whitecaps are lacking a true number 9, a go-to playmaker, and while Robinson certainly won't look to Reyna to totally fill that void, I'm sure he's hoping he can contribute and create some space for the Whitecaps other attacking players. Right now, he's sort of a question mark, although he obviously carries a ton of potential. He's also nursing an injury, so we might have to wait a bit before we actually see him take the pitch again.
OaM: I would say on average, Vancouver had one of the more quiet off-seasons in MLS (until the Fredy Montero announcement). Who are some of the bigger impact players that left? Who are some of the new players that you believe will make an immediate impact for the 1st leg of CCL?
ESF: I think obviously you have to look to the departure of Captain Pedro Morales. He was such a revelation when he first came to MLS, it's a real shame he wasn't able to keep it going consistently. Reyna is an interesting addition, and of course Montero carries a lot of expectation as he puts the Whitecaps kit on. However, I think the biggest addition made in the off-season was Sheanon Williams, who will strengthen the Whitecaps weakest position from last season, RB. Jordan Smith and the oft-injured Fraser Aird couldn't handle the load last season, and Williams should be able to provide a stable presence.
Injuries: Reyna, Nicolas Mezquida, Christian Bolanos, Fredy Montero (fitness)
Expected Starting XI: Ousted, Williams, Parker, Waston, Harvey, Laba, Teibert, Techera, Jacobson, Manneh, Hurtado
Expected first leg score: How much rust will the Whitecaps have to shake off? I'll say this one ends in a 1-1 draw
You can catch Once a Metro’s answers to Eight Six Forever’s questions here.
By the way... tickets for Wednesday night’s game at Red Bull Arena are still available. And your seats will be great since they are not opening the upper bowl. Come by and support the team. Kickoff temperature should be around 50 degrees.