Sloppy finishing dooms Red Bulls in CCL once again

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The New York Red Bulls created several chances in Tuesday's clash with Santos Laguna, but wound up with no goals to show for it

Big games turn on big chances. Convert the chance and it can spark a team to victory. Miss, and it can give your opponent the window to take control. 

As Marc Rzatkowski's pass found a wide-open Bradley Wright-Phillips in font of goal in the 35th minute of an intense and even match, the sparse and cold crowd at Red Bull Arena sat expecting a trademark Wright-Phillips finish, but instead of a goal, the normally reliable English striker sent the clear look wide. 

Just seven minutes later, Santos Laguna made the Red Bulls pay for that miss, with Diego Valdes scoring a goal just before halftime that stunned the Red Bulls. Another Santos Laguna goal just two minutes into the second half gave the visiting Mexican club two away goals and full control of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal series after a 2-0 first-leg victory. 

Santos Laguna goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco made that lead stand up, making a handful of top-notch saves to leave the Red Bulls facing the daunting task of having to score a multi-goal victory in Torreon, Mexico, and lamenting the chances they missed on Tuesday night. 

"Credit to him, I think he made some good saves, but I still think it's more on the finishing," said Wright-Phillips, who also had a great chance saved by Orozco in the 90th minute. "I feel like I owe the team a couple of goals. Let's see what I can do." 

It was Wright-Phillips' early miss that stood out as the turning point of the match, because up to that point the it had been even, with the Red Bulls looking very comfortable against a Santos Laguna side playing a mostly first-choice squad. The miss seemed to unsettle the Red Bulls and give Santos Laguna some confidence. 

"The first goal would have been important if [Wright-Phillips] had converted. I think it would have changed the whole series because we would have jumped on them early and it would have complicated things for them," New York midfielder Kaku said. "I think we played a good first half, good pressure, created chances, which was very important. That's how games are though, if you don't finish chances then the first goal is against you it can hurt you." 

The missed chances on the night brought back memories of the team's 2018 CCL semifinal loss to Chivas Guadalajara, a series that also turned on the Red Bulls' inability to generate goals. 

The Santos Laguna victory wasn't just about missed chances though. The visitors also created two good goals, breaking down a Red Bulls defense that hadn't allowed a goal at home in 799 minutes in all competitions.  The forward tandem of Javier Correa and Julio Furch proving to be a handful for the normally-dominant Red Bulls center-back tandem of Aaron Long and Tim Parker. 

"I just think today it was a different threat up there for them, two strikers, something that we haven't really dealt with," Wright-Phillips said. "They're good players, credit to them, they gave A-Lo and Tim a good game." 

Correa and Furch were able to give Santos Laguna the ability to bypass the Red Bulls press by sending long balls to their strikers and starting their attacks in the opposing half, which not only put Red Bulls defenders in one-on-one defending situations repeatedly, it also helped keep the Red Bulls from forcing the kind of turnovers in the attacking half of the field that they thrive on. 

After the match, Red Bulls coach Chris Armas sounded like a man trying to remain positive about his team's overall performance, but also one who wasn't totally happy with how his team managed a game that was closer than the final score suggests. 

"I felt on the night it was a little bit self-inflicted at times," Armas said. "We saw that, as a team, they're not always sprinting at you, and their back-line was always dropping in transitions. There was time and space if we could just calm down a little bit, but there did seem to be some unforced errors that we didn't get right." 

Now the Red Bulls will have the weekend off from MLS play to rest up and prepare for a return leg in Torreon on Tuesday. They will be a heavy underdog against a Santos Laguna team that is tough to beat at home. 

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"It's obviously going to be tough going there. What we did show is that we created chances," Wright-Phillips said. "If we just finish those it's obviously a different game. I get confidence from that, and the team has too. We know we can create chances." 

The Red Bulls will head to Mexico unlikely to be intimidated by the atmosphere, not after last year's journey through the CCL, which saw them make trips to Tijuana and Guadalajara and hold their own. 

"I think we have a chance. We had to play in Tijuana and we played a great game and scored a bunch of goals," Kaku said. "I think we have faith in ourselves and believe we can turn this around and win this series." 

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