HARRISON, N.J. – When the New York Red Bulls take the field at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night, the task at hand will likely require mid-season sharpness – not ideal for a team that played its first game of the MLS regular season on Saturday.
Last Wednesday night, with a comfortable two-goal aggregate lead over Atletico Pantoja in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16, the Red Bulls wanted to see more from themselves than advancement. Those 90 minutes in a wintery Harrison were about preparing for the intangibleness of a Mexican side that New York has no first-hand knowledge of.
While the domestic season in MLS can become beneficially monotonous after a while, the unknown of exotic opponents from Mexico and the lack of familiarity with them makes preparation uniquely challenging.
“In Europe, you have a feeling for this team, you saw it in the TV before, something like this,” German midfielder Marc Rzatkowski said. “Here you play in Mexico and Dominican Republic, last season we played in Costa Rica against a team from Honduras. So, it’s a little bit surprising how the teams are.”
The need to improve brought about abnormal displays of emotion on the field Wednesday, wherein three New York goals were met with tepid reactions, but a misdirected pass near midfield – while climbing to a 5-0 aggregate win – caused outward frustration.
In a race against time to remove early-season rust, those reactions are justified. The Red Bulls Quarterfinal opponent, Santos Laguna, just scored 11 goals over two legs against C.D. Marathon. The first three of those 11 – in a 6-2 Leg 1 win in Honduras – were netted by newly-signed forward Javier Marcelo Correa.
Amid all the foreignness of “Los Guerreros” (The Warriors), the story surrounding Santos’ hat-trick hero from Leg 1 is not far off that of the Red Bulls’ “Dos Nuevos” (Bradley Wright Phillips).
Firstly, the differences are clear: Correa, 26, is two years younger than Wright-Phillips was when he trialed and then signed with New York in the summer of 2013. The Argentine also does not have the footballing family of the Englishman, although no one does.
They are alike, however, in their transient career paths. Prior to his move this December, Correa played for seven clubs over roughly ten years. In doing so, he stayed in South America, with six clubs in his native Argentina and one in neighboring Paraguay. Wright-Phillips, similarly, had five stints over a nine-year period, all in England.
Six-and-a-half years into his stay in MLS, it’s clear Wright-Phillips’ career-defining move was his one from Europe to North America. For Correa, the book is still being written, but six goals in nine appearances is a promising start.
His three goals against Marathon in Leg 1 provided the total package of goal-scoring: instinct, composure and good fortune.
For the first, Correa backed into a Marathon defender – strongly, as if he was boxing out in basketball – dragged the ball toward the endline and fizzed a tight-angle shot inches inside the near post.
Insomuch as that first was muscle memory, Correa had time to think about his second. The 6-foot-1 forward did well to gather a pass that was behind him, and then superbly looked up and curled his shot from 20 yards out past the goalkeeper.
Then, the third, which was a case of right place, right time. Correa reacted quicker to a loose ball than the Marathon defenders, stuck his leg out and deflected an attempted clearance into the goal.
Stopping Correa and Los Guerreros’ attack will be paramount on Tuesday, as the Red Bulls hope to take a lead to Mexico for Leg 2, with as few away goals conceded as possible. For all the mysticism surrounding the foreign outfit, Santos has scored as many goals (11) in nine Liga MX matches as it did in its downhill two-legged series with Marathon.
Suspension and injury may slice off both outside edges of New York’s league-best defense from last season, but the Red Bulls should still have enough to handle Correa and company – who were shutout by Club Leon, 3-0, on Saturday. No one can know for sure of that, though, until the waiting game ends at Red Bull Arena.