HARRISON, N.J. – Given the torrential downpour, it was sometimes ugly, but the New York Red Bulls move on to the quarterfinals of the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League, beating Olimpia 2-0 in an effective performance at Red Bull Arena on Thursday.
The match saw the Red Bulls stay compact and tight defensively, doing a solid job closing down on the Honduran side’s speedy wing play. They moved the ball well and quickly, a surprising sign given that the MLS side is just emerging from preseason.
Most stark, however, was the difference between this year’s result and what the Red Bulls showed last year. A year ago in this same tournament, the Red Bulls crashed out in the quarterfinal round to a Vancouver Whitecaps side that was also in preseason. This series against Olimpia, the Red Bulls finished off their opponent after a 1-1 result away in the first leg.
They looked and played like a markedly different team.
“At halftime I reminded them ‘OK, let’s make sure our concentration level remains high. That we stay after the game the right way;’ we knew that a clean sheet was the most important thing and so we emphasized that,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said after the game.
Marsch attributed the difference to players staying in better shape during the offseason.
“We’re also a bit younger so the guys can handle some of these challenges. I said last year that we lost the series in December and this year we won the series in December because the guys came in fit, they understand what they were going to require and I’m very happy with the commitment this group showed this offseason and into preseason.”
A Bradley Wright-Phillips goal in the 54th minute, a worm-burner from 20 yards out, gave the Red Bulls the lead. Then 10 minutes later a Sean Davis shot from 22 yards deflected off an Olimpia defender, catching goalkeeper Donis Escober flatfooted and out of position.
The goals were fitting and deserved, given that the Red Bulls had controlled much of the match up until the second goal was scored. Possession and opportunities clearly tilted their way.
The Honduran side, which gained entry via winning the CONCACAF League, were a difficult test for the Red Bulls. Unlike last year’s opponent, Olimpia were well into their domestic season and showed sharpness and good movement for spells throughout the match.
But the Red Bulls did a good job keeping their shape, with Tyler Adams and the goal scorer Davis making important runs to cover space defensively and keep a quick and technical Olimpia attack bottled up.
“That’s what you build on -- if the backline looks steady, you know at any time you can score a goal because the pressure wasn’t on us to score,” Wright-Phillips said. “It was a bit more relaxed in front of goal because we knew that.”
Saying that “now the stakes get raised, quite a bit” with a quarterfinal match-up against Liga MX side Club Tijuana looming next week, the Red Bulls will be a bit more confident than they were a year ago. Not only were the bad memories of last year’s Champions League exit exorcised, confidence was gained from Thursday night’s result.
“Without a doubt, I think we went through a lot of important experiences last year. I think the Vancouver series last year was disappointing. Jesse and the staff were big on us coming in fit and being prepared,” Davis said.
“Our mindset coming into preseason was that there would be zero excuses going into these CONCACAF games.”