With the start of the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League campaign less than a month away, and a change of venue for the first leg now confirmed, let’s take a closer look at the New York Red Bulls’ chances of advancing to the next round.
When the CCL draw came out in December, Red Bulls fans were cautiously optimistic about the team’s chances in the tournament. Being able to escape having to play a powerhouse like Saprissa definitely caused a sigh of relief amongst supporters. Just the thought of playing in a stadium with Costa Ricans in it sent shivers down everyone’s spine. How could any team be expected to win a game when there were Costa Ricans in the stands? As the USMNT proved in September, it’s impossible.
Instead, our boys in white would have the chance to face CD Olimpia of Honduras. No slouch in their own right, Olimpia qualified for CCL by winning the newly formed CONCACAF League, a tournament for Central American and Caribbean clubs to compete in with the winner advancing to CCL. Since the draw though, things have changed dramatically. Olimpia has sold many of their top players during the transfer window, including Roger Rojas, their top goal scorer in CONCACAF League. There has also been political unrest since the last Honduran presidential election. This unrest has caused both Honduran teams in CCL to move their home legs outside the country.
Conflicting reports have stated that either Olimpia requested the move in response to the troubling situation unfolding in their nation or the US State Department advised Red Bulls not to travel to Honduras at this time. Regardless of who made the request, CONCACAF has confirmed that both Honduran clubs in CCL will be playing outside Honduras. Motagua and Club Tijuana will play each other in Texas (and Tijuana); the Red Bulls and Olimpia will play the first leg of their series in San Jose, Costa Rica, on February 22.
RBNY will be protected from the notorious American sensitivity to being watched by Costa Ricans by the fact the game at Estadio Nacional in San Jose will be played behind closed doors. This is not to protect the American players from having to deal with a stadium full of Costa Rican fans, but because Olimpia is in the middle of a six-match stadium ban. Fan conduct at prior CONCACAF tournament games forced the team to play its home games without any fans in attendance. It also allowed CONCACAF to move their games to a stadium of their choosing. In this case, CONCACAF decided an empty stadium in a neutral country was more to their liking.
So what does this all mean for Red Bulls? Well safety and security is the most important thing. Playing away from Honduras and away from fans should take away some of the edge that Olimpia had. Add in the fact that they have lost most of their star power, and things start looking up for New York. If the transfer of Kaku goes through and he integrates himself with the team in the short time between now and the game - or some other high-profile signing joins the RBNY squad - and New York suddenly looks like the odds on favorite to advance. Unfortunately, we’re a very cynical bunch and any glimmer of hope causes most of us to start ranting about how this team always finds a way to lose. I’m usually guilty of this, but this time, I’m more than cautiously optimistic. I’m excited.
The thought of playing a depleted team in a stadium that’s foreign even to them, with our new shiny Argentinian playmaker makes me giddy. Even if we hold on for a draw, we host the second leg on March 1st. Something tells me Honduran players won’t adapt to the cold March weather as well as the team that is based there. All in all, I feel confident that Jesse can find a way to rally the troops and walk out of Costa Rica with one thing Bruce Arena couldn’t muster: three points.