Many US and Canadian teams have seen visits to Costa Rica’s capital city turn into ambushes over the years.
But New York City FC made light work of their 2022 Concacaf Champions League opener vs. Santos de Guapiles in San Jose Tuesday night, cruising past the Tico side in a 2-0 first-leg win that head coach Ronny Deila called “a professional performance.”
Even a 69th-minute sending-off for wide midfielder Santiago Rodriguez – “I can't understand how you can give a red card in this situation,” lamented Deila – couldn’t derail the reigning MLS Cup champs, who looked the part as they kept their shape and limited Santos to one shot on goal. Meanwhile, 2021 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos extended his torrid scoring form into the new year with a first-half brace.
“We had full control of the game,” Deila told reporters in his postgame press conference from the Estadio Nacional. “You can see that they didn’t create anything, even though we got [down to] 10 men. We were really solid and disciplined and compact. So that was very pleasing, and also the big chances we created as well. We had many chances, we should have scored even more. But when we get through their front players, we created chances over and over again and that's a good thing.”
The visitors bossed most of the major statistical categories and one of their quiet standouts was holding midfielder Gedion Zelalem, a familiar name to longtime US soccer watchers, one who's attempting to work his way back to full form and fitness after a litany of injury woes sidetracked his career and much-ballyhooed time at Arsenal.
“I believed in Gedion all the time, he has been here already two years. But he's been injured all the time,” said Deila after Zelalem shined alongside Nicolas Acevedo in his second career start for City. “The reason we have kept him is because we know when he’s injury-free, he has quality that few other players have in this league. Technically very, very gifted, has good awareness, good understanding of the game. So he still needs to work on his defense play, and I think that's improving as well also. So I have a lot of expectation for Gedion in the future.”
Santos had to travel some 70 kilometers to play this match in the capital because their home venue does not meet Concacaf standards, and had to play without three key starters whose status as foreign players embroiled them in a work visa kerfuffle. When NYCFC were awarded a 5th-minute penalty kick – one of several costly early defensive errors by the hosts – it made the climb that much steeper for the underdogs.
Composed and organized in an unfussy 4-2-3-1 alignment, the Cityzens didn’t gift them much in the way of self-inflicted wounds, either.
“I'm very, very proud and very happy for the performance we had today,” said center back Maxime Chanot after the Round of 16 opener. “It wasn’t an easy game, especially because it was the first game of the season for us. Respect the game plan from the coach, from Ronny.”
While Castellanos’ future is uncertain as transfer interest swirls, NYCFC harbor legitimate hopes of building on last year’s title run. The fluidity and understanding among their cadre of young talents show why.
“I think what we struggled with a little bit today was to play through the midfield. When we first played through the midfield, we created chances all the time,” said Deila. “I think Santi was really good, Maxi [Moralez] was top and Talles [Magno] and Taty, and those four together, they opened them up every time they get turned in between the lines. So it's going to be tough for the other team to defend against us when we get more play together with these players.”
Now they’ll jet to Los Angeles, where they’ll host their home leg at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium next Wednesday, a few days before their MLS season opener vs. the LA Galaxy. While an imperfect concession to the shortage of eligible, available venues in the Tri-State area, it’s one that Deila and his squad seem content with as they aim to construct a methodical run at Champions League glory.