HARRISON, N.J. — Hosting Tigres UANL in Leg One of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal, New York City FC couldn't find a breakthrough.
After an impressive first half followed by a more balanced second half, Tigres forward Eduardo Vargas found a late winner with essentially the last kick of the game, enough for Tigres to take a 1-0 advantage to Mexico for Leg Two.
It'll never be ideal, but NYCFC's second "home" match at Red Bull Arena came with some semblance of a home-field advantage. Sure, the emptiness of the South Ward — the section that hold the Red Bulls supporters groups — was odd, but, there were still 22 players on the pitch, there were fans making plenty noise of noise holding a variety of beverages, and there was soccer.
Behind the goal opposite the vacant South Ward, the NYCFC fans' persistent noise from whistle to whistle ensured they were the louder fanbase despite being outnumbered by Tigres fans across the stadium. Tigres' numerical advantage was most evident by the stadium-wide, disappointed “oooooh” on a few of Tigres' best chances or the palpable air of expectation whenever the ball came near Andre-Pierre Gignac’s stratosphere, let alone his foot.
"It was better thanks to the fans who came, it was really important," Maxime Chanot said after the game. "We're obviously really disappointed, they deserved to see NYCFC win on this night. I'm so sorry to the fans, and thanks again for those who came."
Tigres fans weren't going to let the threat of a scoreless draw stop their party, releasing a cloud of yellow and blue smoke in the 86th minute. It turned out to be a case of premature celebration because Tigres scored on the last kick of the game, though there was not a second round of yellow and blue smoke.
James Sands has arrived
Anchoring NYCFC's midfield, the 19-year-old James Sands deputized the area between his center backs and midfield partners like a veteran. It was evident last season, but, Sands has arrived.
In possession, he often dropped between the center backs to dictate play and progress the ball. Out of possession, he seldom found himself out of position while consistently bothering Tigres' opulent collection of attacking talent, undeterred even when Gignac got the best of him with a suave nutmeg.
Sands' rise from young player with potential to important squad member under two coaching staffs has been hugely valuable for NYCFC, as is his positional fluidity between defensive midfield and center back. Handling his business against Tigres is no small feat.
Can NYCFC's stars outshine Tigres' stars in leg two?
Heber had a few chances that didn't find the back of the net. Alexandru Mitrita had more than a few majestic runs that didn't end in a goal contribution. Maxi Moralez entered from the bench in the 76th minute and couldn't find the difference, ditto for Jesus Medina and Taty Castellanos when they entered.
Gignac and Vargas were far from perfect for Tigres, spurning their share of chances too, but in stoppage time it was Vargas scoring after a Gignac rebound. Fine margins.
The good news? Particularly in the first half, NYCFC enjoyed passages of beautiful soccer. Playing out of the back through pressure, combining through the midfield and final third, it was a joy to watch at times.
"I think we had a very, very good first half," Ronny Deila said after the match. "I think we created a lot of chances. It’s unbelievable we didn’t score a goal. They had one big chance in the first half and I was really, really satisfied with that."
And there's optimism heading down to Mexico next week.
"It's unfortunate but we go into the second leg having confidence," Sands said. "We created all of those chances, there's no reason we can't do it again. We only need one goal and we're right back in it."