Bradley Wright-Phillips: “It’s a big game, a very big game. It’s one of the biggest of the year.” (Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Front Row Soccer Editor
HARRISON, N.J. — When the Red Bulls welcome the Vancouver Whitecaps for the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals series Wednesday, they find themselves in a unique situation in their first competitive match of 2017:
They face a must-win situation.
If they lose their Major League Soccer opener at Atlanta United March 5, the Red Bulls have 33 games to bounce back from that defeat.
If they fall or even draw at Red Bull Arena Wednesday, it could spell disaster if their hopes of reaching the semifinals. The second leg is set for March 5 in Vancouver.
“This is everything,” striker Bradley Wright-Phillips said.
“The Red Bulls have never gotten this far in the Champions League. We have the chance to be part of this history and take the club as far as it’s ever been. It’s a big game, a very big game. It’s one of the biggest of the year.”
Probably one of the biggest in club history. The Red Bulls have never been to the CCL knockout round before.
At the time of Wednesday’s kickoff, they have one day less than a month of preparing for the game. So, don’t exactly expect world-class soccer.
“We should have a full complement of players,” head coach Jesse Marsch said.
That means midfielders Mike Grella (arthroscopic knee surgery) and Alex Muyl (head injury) center back Damien Perrinelle (late preseason arrival) will be available for selection.
Marsch said that his players “are not all totally fit they are not all totally sharp. So I know it’s not going to be the best match we ever played. If you ask Vancouver, I think they would say they are in same boat. The fact that we’re playing each other, we’re on the same playing field. And after two games we’ll see whose able to gain an edge.”
The best-case scenario Wednesday is a shutout victory, the more goals, the better. The worst case? A loss, which would mean New York must win in Vancouver.
Wright-Phillips felt the team will be pumped up for the confrontation.
“Everyone’s got that message loud and clear,” he said. “Jesse has let us know how important it is for us and the club. We’ll be out there giving everything. I’m very happy for the team because it can put our mind into midseason form. That’s what you want to be as quick as it can.”
The Red Bulls? They’re thinking big.
“Once you get to this point of the tournament and there are eight teams left, you just think why can’t we just win it all,” team captain Sacha Kljestan said. “Easier said than done, right? But I’m excited about our challenge. It would be great for this club to reach the semifinals where we would play against a Mexican opponent and really test ourselves against them and some of the best teams in North America.
“One step at a time right now but I have high goals as leader of this team that we can win trophies this year. At least one, I am hoping.”