The New York Red Bulls and manager Chris Armas prepare for a new season with a familiar challenge this month. The club will once again take part in the knockout stages of the Concacaf Champions League, beginning their journey against Atlético Pantoja in the Round of 16.
A thrilling run to the semifinals in last year’s tournament continued an interesting trend for the Red Bulls. In each of their past four appearances in the Champions League, the Red Bulls have managed to progress even further than the prior attempt.
A first for everything
The franchise’s debut showing in the regional championship came in 2009, following their unexpected charge to the MLS Cup final the year before. That playoff run was good for a spot in the CCL preliminary round, where victory would lead to the group stage.
A home-and-home series against W Connection of Trinidad and Tobago produced a 2-2 draw in the first leg, and all to play for on a summer evening at Giants Stadium. In what was a troubled season in numerous ways, Andre Toussaint’s brace sank New York in a 4-3 aggregate win. Amidst a disappointing night, it was only the away fans that could celebrate.
The group stage
Now, sometimes a change in the rules can help things. For the Red Bulls, the elimination of the preliminary round for their second run in 2014 was a positive. Head coach Mike Petke’s Supporters’ Shield triumph in 2013 ultimately placed New York in a group alongside CD FAS of El Salvador and fellow MLS side Montreal Impact.
Despite a win to begin the tournament, a loss in Montreal, two draws and a Saër Sène penalty kick last seen near Mars ended the team’s campaign sooner than anyone would’ve liked.
The knockout rounds
Another Supporters’ Shield in 2015, this time under Jesse Marsch, had the Red Bulls back in the group stage for the 2016-17 edition. An unbeaten run against Alianza (El Salvador) and Antigua (Guatemala) booked a place in the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, a disappointing exit would follow at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps.
On the doorstep
Last season, an even stronger overall performance would materialize. Honduran side Olimpia was dispatched in the Round of 16, followed by a dominant 5-1 aggregate win over Mexican club Tijuana.
Eventual champions Chivas Guadalajara would do just enough to take a place in the finals, with just a single goal across both legs being the difference. It was obviously not the ending supporters would have wanted, but that tournament certainly showed what New York can do on the regional stage.
In 2019, the task will be to continue to progress. Each appearance in the Champions League has taken the Red Bulls further. It all begins with Caribbean titleholders Atlético Pantoja, and expectations will be (and should be) at a high level.
Format changes have of course played a role occasionally. However, the New York Red Bulls have ultimately been able to learn and improve with each of their berths in the Concacaf Champions League. If this equation proves to be correct, appearance number five is supposed to get to the finals.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography