The New York Red Bulls have a much anticipated season opener vs. Club Atletico Pantoja in the Concacaf Champions League.
“There’s no better feeling than the start of a season,” is what New York Red Bulls fullback Connor Lade told Matt Harmon on the New York Red Bulls Podcast.
Well, the Bulls from New York are running wild with the team kicking off its 2019 season in a Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 match against Dominican side Club Atletico Pantoja on Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. ET in the Dominican Republic.
This game will also be Pantoja’s season opener, and it’s the first time New York will play a Dominican team in a competitive match.
The Metros are the heavy favorites to win, however, in every game, there are positives and negatives to look out. Here are the good and the bad about NYRB’s first match of the season. Let’s start with the bad so you can leave on a good note.
Felix Sanchez Stadium isn’t Quite Like the Red Bull Arena
Going back to Jan. 17, the venue of the match was still in the air because Pantoja’s stadium, Felix Sanchez Stadium did not meet Concacaf’s requirement due to poor lighting on the pitch, the condition of the grass and so on. Sponsored by Ministry of Sports, the club worked on the state of their stadium and is now able to host a Champions League game.
“We are doing what Concacaf told us,” Pantoja’s general manager Adalberto Herasme said to the club’s website, “such as the improvement of the lighting, the changing rooms, sanitary facilities and the painting of the interior and exterior of the Stadium.The lighting parameters demanded by the competition have been achieved and that gives us a lot of peace of mind. Our work, supported by the Ministry of Sports, has been reflected in the entire structure, but also in the grass, which is in a more favorable condition.”
The Dominican team posted pictures of their stadium on Twitter back on Feb. 4 to showcase the work they did.
El trabajo y el compromiso con el pueblo dominicano no termina. Todos juntos llenemos y dejemos saber al mundo que el fútbol es una realidad que crece en República Dominicana #somosdominicanos #somosguerreros pic.twitter.com/nxFwbkBBNr
— Atlético Pantoja (@atleticopantoja) February 5, 2019
Despite the work the club put in to repair their stadium, according to Dominican sports news outlet Doce, Felix Sanchez still isn’t at a condition NYRB players will be comfortable to play in.
Head coach Chris Armas fully expected that.
“I think no matter what when you play these games whether it’s World Cup qualifiers or Champions League play on the road, you have to expect things not to be perfect,” Armas said in a preseason interview. “We expect a tough game. Road mentality. Things won’t be easy. We’ll be ready for whatever comes.”
This Fame Means a lot for Pantoja
Los Guerreros’ game vs. the Red Bulls is the most important match in the club’s 19 years of existence. It’s their first ever Champions League outing and they’re just the second Dominican team to play in the competition.
Santo Domingo won’t be the only city rooting for Pantoja, the whole country will be supporting them. Expect a ton of animated Dominican fans at Felix Stadium on Wednesday night.
As for the Red Bulls, it’s the team’s fifth time participating in the Champions League, therefore, it’s fair to say that Wednesday’s encounter means a little bit more to the Pantoja.
Tactically New York Could be out of their Comfort Zone
According to Doce reporter Angel Ruiz Dominguez, CAP head coach Oliver Mendoza understands that his side are the underdogs hence his game-plan will more than likely be to sit back.
If so, it would take more energy for NYRB to press them up top as they usually do. This will force New York to be less direct, something they’re not used to.
Too Much Pressure on Pantoja Players
As noted in the bad compartment, Wednesday’s game will be Pantoja’s first ever Champions League match. It will be the most historical game in the history of the club. This could be good or bad for NYRB, either their opponents will get inspired or they’ll choke because of all the hype and pressure.
Furthermore, because it’s the Dominican club’s first ever CL match, the Red Bulls players are far more experienced than Pantoja.
CAP is Rebuilding
The best time to attack your opponents is when they have newbies and a new strategy. According to Doce, more than 10 players left the club during the offseason along with their head coach. Their new coach Mendoza is instilling a new possession style of play to the club.
The Red Bulls have Unfinished CL Business from Last Year
Armas’ men suffered a heartbreaking loss in the semifinal last year to Mexican side Club Deportivo Guadalajara. The team will surely want to go further than the semifinals this season, a finish in the Round of 16 will be beyond disappointing.
If NYRB does reach the CL final this season, they will be just one step away from becoming the first MLS club to win the competition. The club couldn’t ask for a stronger incentive before going on the pitch.
“It’s another opportunity in another tournament, no Major Soccer League team lifted that trophy yet,” Armas said in the preseason. “It’s a lot to play for. A lot to be excited about. It gives us great motivation.”