A dose of quality and experience off the bench helped the New York Red Bulls weather a storm and muster a late comeback under testing conditions at noisy Estadio Cuscatlan in El Salvador's capital city on Tuesday night.
After a frustrating first half for the Red Bulls, Alexander Larin's superbly-struck free kick gave hosts Alianza FC a second-half lead that threatened to rock RBNY's CONCACAF Champions League campaign. But Sacha Kljestan and new signing Omer Damari entered the fray and turned the tide to put the MLS side back on course.
“Alianza was very organized and well-coached, played with a lot of heart and desire,” New York coach Jesse Marsch said in his post-game press conference. “Great crowd, a hard place to play, made it very difficult for us for 90 minutes. We're a bit lucky to get out of here with a 1-1 draw. But we knew that they were a good team and we knew that they'd give us a really good match.
“And we know that the [return] leg back in New York [on Sept. 15] will not be easy.”
With Alianza packing the midfield and keeping numbers behind the ball, RBNY found their turnovers quickly turned into dangerous counters in the other direction – often orchestrated by Salvadoran international and onetime MLS target Rodolfo Zelaya – over the game's first hour.
Marsch saw Kljestan play a pivotal role in calming the waters before Damari struck for his first Red Bulls goal, popping up at the back post to finish off Justin Bilyeu's header across the face of goal with some 20 minutes left.
“Sacha came in and really started to dictate what was going on in the game and gave really good set-piece delivery,” said Marsch. “And Omer Damari came in and I thought fit into the game really well, found a lot of good spots, connected a lot of really good plays, scored a good goal and then almost helped set up the winner.
“Alianza sat back and were very defensive and very organized, and it was hard for us to break them down,” he added. “They make things very difficult and crowded in the middle, compact. And we were trying to play too many balls through the middle and we lost them and let Zelaya out on the counter, [Herbert] Sosa out on the counter … We were a little bit lucky not to be down by more than one goal.”
The result keeps New York in first place in CCL Group F at the halfway point of the group stage – though RBNY must still travel to Guatemala to visit Antigua GFC in late September before Alianza arrive at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 15.
But March is encouraged by a fast start for Damari, who arrived on loan from sister club RB Leipzig on Aug. 4, as well as solid contributions from further down the roster.
“A really, really good performance from Omer,” said Marsch. “We've seen him already in training be quite good and fit in quite well, so we're excited about the future with him, for sure.”