Kekuta Manneh probably had the fastest feet on the field at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday night, but it was his head that helped give the Vancouver Whitecaps an advantage after the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal opener.
Manneh's first-half header helped give the Whitecaps a goal to defend, and defend they did, holding off an impressive second-half by the New York Red Bulls and surviving a red card to send the series back to Vancouver tied 1-1.
"I think it’s massive," Manneh told Goal of the away goal he scored in the 39th minute. "That was our game plan, to come here and get a result. It worked for us, and we’re pleased for the team. We know we still have a lot of work to do to go back in Vancouver. We’re going to do the same thing, grind, because they’re a good team and we’re going to try and take it away from them."
The Red Bulls controlled the majority of the action, holding 57 percent of the possession while producing 10 shots to Vancouver's six, and seven corner kicks to the Whitecaps' lone corner — which they happened to turn into Manneh's goal.
Jesse Marsch's squad lacked sharpness in the attack in the first half but found more of a rhythm after halftime, especially once Whitecaps midfielder Cristian Techera was sent off. Daniel Royer drew an early penalty kick that could have turned the tide sooner, but David Ousted stopped Sacha Kljestan's attempted chip down the middle.
The Red Bulls broke through in the 62nd minute when Bradley Wright-Phillips' quick reflexes allowed him to fire home a loose ball after a Sal Zizzo cross hit Gonzalo Veron and fell at the Englishman's feet.
"Given everything, I was really happy with the second half," Marsch said. "We looked quite good, we were brave and we were more decisive in going after the game. That part was good, so we came out after halftime and obviously we missed a penalty but still kept pushing the game.
"Ultimately, given everything, it’s not a terrible result — and we’ll be ready for next week."
Both teams are battling with the challenge of still being in preseason levels of sharpness while playing a pair of vitally important CCL matches. And both clubs are facing additional challenges.
The Red Bulls are implementing a new tactical system, having switched to a two-forward setup, while the Whitecaps are coping with the absences of several players. From that standpoint, each side came away content. The Red Bulls were happy to see Wright-Phillips and Veron work well together as a forward pairing, while the Whitecaps were pleased to see such a young team go on the road and earn a result.
The upcoming start of the MLS season is fast approaching for both teams, with each side opening March 5, but they will meet in Vancouver three days prior to that in the second leg of the quarterfinal series.
"We’re focused on Thursday’s game," Robinson said of his Whitecaps, who open their MLS season at home against the Philadelphia Union. "Thursday’s game is a massive game for both clubs. Not just obviously Vancouver but also for New York, and it’s great that one team will go through and represent Major League Soccer. Hopefully it’s us, and Jesse will say hopefully it’s them. We’re talking about growing the league, and everything within Major League Soccer, and it’ll be a good test for whichever team qualifies."
The Whitecaps are traditionally a more attack-minded team at home, using their speed on the BC Place artificial turf to unsettle opponents. The Red Bulls are a team that likes to go on the attack, whether home or away, so we could be in for an offensive-minded display, though Robinson isn't quite as convinced.
"I actually don’t know (how the second leg will go) because I’m not sure what Jesse will do, and I’m not sure what I’ll do yet based upon the personnel," Robinson said. "I’m sure it’ll be a physical game. There’ll be lots of mistakes as there were today.
"Hopefully it’s an enjoyable one because we’ll have 15,000 there next week hopefully, so I think they’ll be behind us and it’ll be a good start to the season for us if we get a good result. I’m looking forward to it. It should be exciting next week, so make sure everyone watches."
"I think it’s going to be open," Manneh said. "They have to win the game, we don’t really have to win the game. I think it’s going to be fun because we’re not going to sit back. We’re going to attack, we’re at home. I don’t think a draw is enough for us. We need to score goals and hopefully win the game by a wide margin."
The Red Bulls didn't sound overly convinced that the Whitecaps, who will be missing several attacking players to injury and suspension, will attack with the usual verve they show at BC Place.
"I guess we’ll have to see what Vancouver does, and if they’re really going to come out and play," Kljestan said. "They’ve got an away goal so they’re in the lead. I like where we’re at, though, because we know we have to go there and score a goal, so even if we give up a goal nothing really changes from our game plan. They’re probably in the better spot right now, but I like our chances."