The New York Red Bulls' first-ever CONCACAF Champions League knockout round was entertaining, but ultimately frustrating for fans of the home team. In front of a small, late-February crowd, RBNY did enough to win but came away with a draw. In the context of a home-and-away series that could be decided by away goals, it puts the Red Bulls at a slight disadvantage: they must score in the second leg against Vancouver; must not lose; and may need to score more than once if the Whitecaps find some form.
Unfortunately for the Red Bulls, the key takeaway from this match is that scoring is the aspect of their game that still needs the most work as they transition from preseason to competitive play. The shooting stats from this fixture tell the story of a home team that generated several opportunities, but couldn't quite make them count.
Vancouver had chances too, and opened the scoring in the 39th minute. Kekuta Manneh got a fortuitous deflection off Justin Bilyeu to send his header past Luis Robles.
It was not an undeserved goal in the sense the 'Caps had arguably better chances go awry earlier in the game. But RBNY doesn't have have too many back-line concerns emerging from this outing. What it has is concerns about the attack, because the inherent weakness in the team's preferred system of play (leaving a lot of space at the back for counter attacks) isn't going to go away and is supposed to be compensated for by goals.
Sacha Kljestan's lamentable penalty attempt is not really a relevant example, but it is emblematic of the problem: when the chances were there, RBNY mostly didn't take them.
Those concerns are not insurmountable. The volume of chances created was encouraging, and Bradley Wright-Phillips' 62-minute equalized demonstrated that the players did not simply forget how to shoot during the off-season.
But when Cristian Techera was sent off in the 70th minute for kicking RBNY's right back in the Zizzos...
...the home team had 20 minutes to find a second goal. Against an opponent bunkering to preserve its away-goal advantage, the Red Bulls struggled to create chances. That issue - breaking down a determined and packed defense - has long been a problem for RBNY (it's a problem for most teams, in fairness - otherwise it would be such a rewarding and frquently-deployed tactic).
The team tried a number of ways around Vancouver's disciplined and deep defense, even seeming to temporarily jettison its (now) preferred 4-2-2-2 formation for the 4-2-3-1 it once favored. Nothing worked, and the Whitecaps head to Canada with a first leg result that suits them more than it does RBNY.
For the Red Bulls, the draw is not fatal to their ambitions in CCL, but it was a poor outing: they will expect a greater return from a night that generated 14 shots, they will expect to take their chances (especially PKs) they will expect to win games like these. The opportunity to win the first leg was lost, but the quarterfinal isn't over. This game need not define the start to the year if a happier ending can be conjured in Vancouver on March 2.
Three thoughts on the historic CCL quarterfinal first leg at RBA:
1. Alphonso Davies is as good as they say, or will be
Vancouver's 16-year-old phenom started the game and threatened to finish it on several occasions.
Hindsight may reveal that RBNY's greatest advantage in this series was getting to play the Whitecaps early in the year, before Davies has really found his way in what could be his first full season as a starter in MLS - because based on this performance in CCL, he is a starter in MLS, or he will be once the league gets going.
His talent for torturing full backs will only grow with time. Fortunately for RBNY, he's not likely to improve tremendously between now and the second leg on March 2.
2. Sacha's PK
It was not good. A feeble pass down the middle that an already-committed David Ousted was able to stop by kicking out a leg. Credit the goalkeeper for his reflexes and awareness (and the fact he has now saved three straight penalties at Red Bull Arena - his two PK saves in one game in Harrison in 2015 is a big part of the reason BWP doesn't take spot kicks for RBNY any more), but it was also not a well-taken penalty.
One missed PK isn't the end of the world, but it is fair to ask whether Kljestan is perhaps susceptible to losing his nerve when the stakes are high and he's on the (penalty) spot. After all, the last time we saw Sacha miss a penalty was the last time we saw RBNY in a playoff game.
Kljestan is the team captain this season and readily shouldered the all-eyes-on-me burden of penalty-taking after BWP's hot streak from the spot (he converted all his PKs in 2014) fizzled out in 2015.
Over two years, Kljestan's regular-season record with PKs for RBNY is a respectable 6/8. Throw in his miss against Montreal in last year's playoffs and this miss in CCL - and he's 6/10 in combined MLS regular season, playoffs and CCL games. And 0/2 in the two most significant matches in recent RBNY history: the last game of 2016 and the first of 2017.
Kljestan's needs to hit the net with his next attempt from the spot, or the Red Bulls need to find a new man for the PK-taking job.
3. The lack of subs didn't help
Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson made full use of his bench during this game. He made his first sub after BWP equalized, bringing in Giles Barnes to relieve Erik Hurtado up front. Sheanon Williams relieved rookie right back in the 76th minute, shortly after Techera was sent off. Finally, Kekuta Manneh came out for Kyle Greig intended to refresh the attack.
RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch swapped out Daniel Royer for Derrick Etienne in the 74th minute - fresher legs to run at an opponent playing a man down. And then brought Mike Grella in at the 87th minute when it seemed BWP's fitness had reached its limit. This was hardly aggressively challenging the early-season fitness of the 'Caps.
Many observers (this one included) think in-game management, and particularly substitutions, might be Marsch's greatest shortcoming as a coach. He is easily typecast as a creature of habit: his team plays more or less one way, and he quickly settles on favorites to play almost every game for him. Substitutions often seem to happen mostly in a programmatic and predictable way, as though Marsch is following predetermined game plans rather than spotting an opportunity to tilt the match his way from the bench.
This particular game, however, might be one to give Marsch a pass. His one meaningful substitution - Etienne for Royer - looked a lot like an attempt to improvise a change to the game. It is fair to debate whether Royer was the right man to pull from the field, but the coach was trying something: credit him for that. As for whether Etienne was the right man for the job: he might have been the only man available.
Marsch's bench was not overflowing with options to refresh the attack.
In a game where he wanted another goal - and where fresh legs might have been a particular advantage since any MLS team has suspect fitness at this moment in the season - Marsch really didn't have a lot of game-changing potential among his subs. Back-up 'keeper Ryan Meara clearly wasn't there to help out with finding another goal. Veteran center back Damien Perrinelle has played no preseason friendlies and even if were fully fit, he's not an attacking option. Amir Murillo is a right back who joined the squad last week. Dan Metzger is a central midfielder who hasn't played a minute for the first team.
Marsch's senior attacking options were Mike Grella - who told MSG he was still feeling pain in his leg after surgery to repair an injury sustained during preseason - and Alex Muyl, who sustained facial fractures at the beginning of February. The only fully-fit forward on the bench was Etienne: the only meaningful substitution Marsch made.
The half-fit bench of only-if-we-need-them substitutes didn't help RBNY's cause on the night. That isn't Marsch's fault (unless he left out fitter guys in favor of players he knew he could only deploy in a pinch), and it surely constrained his options when Vancouver gave him the gift of playing a man up for the last 20 minutes.
By the time March 2 and the second leg roll around, it is to be hoped Marsch has a match-day 18 that is truly match-ready.