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Three Thoughts: New York Red Bulls tie Olimpia, 1-1, in 2018 CONCACAF Champions League

Same season-opening tournament as last year, same season-opening result - but also better this time around.

MLS: New York Red Bulls vs New England Revolution Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls’ 2018 season-opener saw the team in Costa Rica for CONCACAF Champions League to play heavyweight Honduran club Olimpia.

CCL games in February challenge MLS teams, since they are more accustomed to being in preseason at this time, and since MLS preseasons usually aren’t gearing up for much more than the start of the MLS regular season - and a slow start to MLS is not fatal to a team’s chances of success in the league, so few clubs are under any real pressure to deliver consistent results in March, April, even May.

But CCL requires MLS teams not just to cut short an already short preseason, but also to be ready for win-or-go-home soccer from day one. It’s not an adjustment every MLS club responds to very well, but RBNY at least had a go at it last year. While last season’s CCL quarterfinal series against Vancouver Whitecaps did not go well, the Red Bulls have retained so many players from the 2017 squad that the lessons learned last February were surely not forgotten.

Jesse Marsch had talked up the importance of applying those lessons to this season’s preparations, and he named a starting lineup for the 2018 opener that featured seven players who had started RBNY’s first game of 2017.

To its credit, the team seized the opportunity to demonstrate it had learned from its lackluster CCL effort last February. RBNY controlled large portions of the first half and closed out the first half looking very likely to run away with the match.

Daniel Royer scored in the 31st minute, finishing off a perfect cross from Bradley Wright-Phillips.

When BWP is launching balls into the box from distance, it’s a sign the Red Bulls are either desperate or delirious. In this case, it was the delirium that comes from relentless attacking momentum. The stats sheet confirmed that RBNY was in dominating form in the opening 45 minutes.

But Olimpia regrouped and came out for the second half with fresh ambition.

And as RBNY’s fitness faded, the nominal home team (forced to play away from home by CONCACAF due to crowd trouble at its own stadium, and ongoing political unrest in Honduras) started to tilt the match its way.

Michaell Chirinos won a penalty as the game ticked into its last 20 minutes, and Brayan Moya equalized from the spot.

The match ended with the Red Bulls clinging on for the draw, watching a stoppage-time header flash wide of Luis Robles’ goal.

Back in 2017, RBNY opened the season with a 1-1 draw in CCL - and then traveled to Vancouver to lose the second leg and exit the competition. As the Whitecaps shows the Red Bulls last year, an away goal and an even score is a handy advantage to take home for the second leg. Now RBNY will get the chance to prove the lessons of last season have really been absorbed, by following the ‘Caps example and closing out this CCL series with a home win. But that must wait until the second leg on March 1.

Until then, three thoughts on RBNY’s 2018 season-opener:

1. Fortune favors the brave

RBNY could have won the game, no doubt: the team had several chances and only put one away, but another goal or a little more composure on the back line, and the match would have been won. So if you want to dwell on this result as a missed opportunity, that is your right.

It is also true that the Red Bulls ran out of gas at a very inconvenient moment in the match: the moment when Olimpia found some better ideas.

Jesse Marsch mentioned RBNY’s sub-optimal fitness as a factor in the team’s second-half fadeaway:

We had chances to maybe make it 2-0 and push the game a little bit and be a little bit sharper, but some of our fitness and game fitness caught up with us.

But before that he noted the Red Bulls didn’t simply decide to let Olimpia catch up with them:

I thought in the first half we played quite well, controlled most of the half, and then you give big credit to Olimpia because in the second half they really raised their game, they started to possess the ball a little bit more and create a few more chances.

There were two teams in the match: one played better in the first half, the other was superior after half-time. The concern for RBNY might be that the better, second-half Olimpia is the one that turns up from the start at Red Bull Arena for the second leg.

Differing fitness levels notwithstanding, what seemed to distinguish Olimpia in the second half of this game was the decision to focus more on playing themselves into the match rather than trying to bully RBNY out of it.

Someone misled the Honduran club about the Red Bulls: they aren’t necessarily flummoxed or neutralized by a physical game, indeed it can suit them quite well. The stop-start nature of a match with frequent fouls need not perturb a team that is mostly trying to get the ball into advanced positions as quickly as possible - there’s no great passing rhythm for fouls to interrupt. And RBNY has players quite capable of giving as good as they get, as they did in this game (and picked up four yellow cards - some harsh, some exactly deserved - along the way).

A more positive approach suited Olimpia better than their initial commitment to “playing dirty” (as described by Danny Royer). It will be a surprise if that more positive Olimpia isn’t at Red Bull Arena on March 1, when the team needs to score at least one goal or it will be out of CCL.

With that in mind, Marsch can be grateful that his side will have the advantages of an away goal already on the board and home field for the second leg. It should be an equally positive RBNY on March 1, seeking to boss the game as it tends to try to do on its own ground:

I know we’re not at our sharpest right now, or at our best, but certainly now looking forward to the leg back home, we’ll have control of the game, we always do at Red Bull Arena, and it will be important for us to capitalize on advantages that we have.

The Red Bulls leave Costa Rica with the advantage in this series, and every incentive to assert that advantage in the next leg.

What both teams can take out of this game is that they are better off attacking the match than ceding momentum to their opponent. Many sides profit from sitting back against RBNY, but Olimpia doesn’t appear to be quite cut out for that approach. And the Red Bulls are built more for attack than defense. The first leg of this CCL match-up suggested that both teams are better off trying to seize the initiative - and that should add up to an entertaining second leg.

2. It’s only February and we’re already at peak Felipe

If Felipe is unsettled by rumors that he might be on RBNY’s list of tradeable players, he didn’t show it in his first appearance of the season. Instead, he provided his usual high-energy presence in midfield, and offered two highlights that neatly illustrate his particular footballing gifts.

When he’s in the mood, Felipe can conjure the sublime with the ball at his feet.

And when he has to, he’ll not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to simply stop an opponent from playing.

There aren’t many players who are regularly responsible for both some of the most beautiful and most ugly moments of a match - but that is Felipe in a nutshell. For better or worse, he’ll raise the level of the game and drag it down, then he’ll Tweet out something blandly optimistic to fans and be on his way to his team’s next fixture.

This game was Felipe’s 125th appearance in all competitions for RBNY - putting him inside the club’s all-time top 20 for appearances. And he’s inside the Red Bulls’ all-time top 15 for competitive starts and minutes played. Last season, he set new club records for single-season starts (43) and minutes (3,921) in all competitions, and tied Eric Alexander’s RBNY single-season record for appearances in all competitions (also 43).

His greatest asset is his consistency, and that tends to mean his strengths and weaknesses are on display in equal measure every time he plays. This game was no exception: we got peak Felipe on day one of the 2018 season because that seems to be the only Felipe there is to get.

3. Credit Michaell Chirinos

The RBNY perspective on Olimpia’s goal is that Aurelien Collin made a mistake. And certainly it was a mistake to lunge in on Michaell Chirinos - hindsight is unforgiving on that point.

But credit the talented Honduran attacker. He knew what he was doing, varying his pace and movement on the ball in a very deliberate effort to lure Collin into mistiming challenge and conceding a penalty. Chirinos got what he was looking for, and while that can certainly be called a mistake on the part of RBNY’s veteran defender, don’t overlook the skill, confidence, and intelligence it took to draw the foul in the first place.