The new year begins earlier than ever for the New York Red Bulls, as the club host the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals against Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Wednesday evening.
CCL Preview: New York Red Bulls vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
New York’s off-season has seen some key changes ahead of their first-ever appearance in this round of the regional tournament. Team captain Dax McCarty was traded to the Chicago Fire, while sporting director Ali Curtis left the team under mysterious circumstances.
Vancouver endured a difficult 2016 MLS season, finishing eighth in the Western Conference and missing the play-offs. But that was certainly not the case in CONCACAF play, as the Whitecaps went 4-0 in the group stage and secured the number one seed for the knockout rounds.
Former Seattle Sounders all-star Fredy Montero was added to the roster last week. How much of an impact he will have early in their season remains to be seen.
These two sides met only once last year, with the Red Bulls earning a 1-0 victory at BC Place in September.
We examine three key aspects for New York heading into an important first leg at Red Bull Arena.
Players to watch
A massive year approaches for Gonzalo Veron, as the Argentine designated player continues to find his role within the team. Often used as a wide midfielder by Jesse Marsch, Veron displayed excellent potential in a forward position last year as well.
Named team captain after the departure of Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan’s leadership role will continue to evolve in 2017. The MLS leader in assists last season, Kljestan will need to ensure that New York is both mentally and physically prepared for the Champions League matches ahead. His work in the middle will also be important as Sean Davis now prepares for his first season as a full-time starter.
With so much at stake early in the campaign, striker Bradley Wright-Phillips will need to contribute in the final third. Wright-Phillips had a slow start in terms of goals in 2016, and a repeat of that beginning could see major issues for advancing in the Champions League.
Jesse Marsch’s two seasons in Harrison have seen a reliance on a high-press approach and a 4-2-3-1 formation.
But 2017 could see more use of a 4-2-2-2 line-up, used occasionally during the pre-season. The change may see more production thanks to Veron being used as a second striker alongside Bradley Wright-Phillips.
With a need to produce goals in the quarter-final round, Champions League progression could arise from coaching modifications and tactical shifts.
The calendar abides
Always difficult for MLS sides, the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League beginning in February is not easy for New York.
However, the draw pitting them against a fellow MLS club with Vancouver is a fortunate pairing. New York’s pressing and aggressive style may cause problems for a squad still finding their groove.
Dangerous and in-form opposition like Deportivo Saprissa, Pachuca and Tigres UANL could await in the semi-final round. But both New York and Vancouver are on a level playing field when it comes to overall fitness beginning on Wednesday.