Jesse Marsch: “We’re under a little bit of a time crunch, but we’ll be ready.” (Noah K. Murray, USA Today Sports)

TUCSON, Arizona — It’s only February, yet Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch knows its crunch time for his Major League Soccer team.

Crunch time as in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout round.

New York hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CCL quarterfinals at Red Bull Arena next Wednesday, Feb. 22. The second leg is set for B.C. Place in Vancouver March 2.

In fact, Marsch has called that opening leg “one of our biggest matches, if not our biggest match, of the entire season.”

And the season hasn’t begun quite yet.

So, don’t expect midseason form on George Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22).

“For us being in this Champions League tournament, it means that we have a four-week window, which is incredible how short amount of time that is to try to prepare,” Marsch said after his Red Bulls registered a 3-1 win over FC Tucson Saturday night. “It’s tested us in a lot of different ways, but I think in some ways it’s good because its put a real urgency into what we’ve done every day.”

On Saturday night the Red Bulls were buoyed by the fact they used three vital players in the encounter against the Premier Development League side for the first time this preseason– goalkeeper Luis Robles, midfielder Sacha Kljestan and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Kljestan, whose corner kick set up the first goal of the match by Sal Zizzo, and Robles played 90 minutes apiece. Wright-Phillips was taken out in the 65th minute.

“There were a lot of little plays in there where on a day where we’re a little sharper we could’ve scored quite a few more goals,” Marsch said. “That’s what preseason’s about, trying to get them a little bit fitter, a little bit sharper, a little bit cleaner so that now when the bigger games come that they’re ready to go.”

The Red Bull meet Hudson River Derby rival New York City FC in their Desert Diamond Cup opener here Wednesday afternoon and Houston Dynamo Saturday night before returning home for the CCL confrontation.

Despite the rapid preparations, Marsch was optimistic about his team.

“We’re under a little bit of a time crunch, but we’ll be ready,” he said. “We’ll put a lot into these next few days and then come the 22nd we’re ready to throw our best effort out.”

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at