Tyler Adams scored for the Red Bulls in the first half. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)
HARRISON, N.J. — There’s just no stopping the Red Bulls these days.
After a slow start, New York find its legs and then some in the second half and registered a 3-1 victory over Tijuana to capture the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals series before 6,393 fans at Red Bull Arena.
The Red Bulls won the aggregate-goals series, 5-1, to reach the CCL semifinals for the first time. New York did so by beating a Mexico team twice, 2-0, in Tijuana last Tuesday and of course, the latest result.
They will play the winner of the Seattle Sounders FC-Chivas series in the semifinals. Entering Wednesday night’s second leg in Mexico, Seattle leads the series, 1-0. The first leg of the semis will be played April 3-5, the second leg April 10-12.
The Red Bulls, the third MLS team to upend a Mexican side in the CCL knockout round, becamae the first league club to defeat a Liga MX team in both games.
“I think it’s more of an achievement for the team,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said. “I think it’s more a statement about our league, about our club, about our team. This is a big group effort. I appreciate you referencing me but this is more about us. We’re not done. It’s only the quarter finals. It feels like a big victory and a big comment but it’s only the quarterfinals and we’ve got to now get ourselves back in the season and ramp ourselves up for another crazy match up and we’ll see what that is tomorrow night. That will be fun either way. Imagine going to Seattle in a full house there or down at Guadalajara with my old friends with Chivas.”
Tyler Adams, Marc Rzatkowski and Alejandro Moreno Gamarra found the back of the net for the hosts as Bradley Wright-Phillips, better known for his goal-scoring than his goal-creating, recorded a personal-best three assists.
Asked what he told the team in the post-game huddle on the field, Marsch replied, “I congratulated them on making history. Reminded them that there’s a lot more to be played for in this tournament and then we talked a little bit about standing up tall even when we got hit early, sticking together and finding a way, as the game went on, to absolutely know we weren’t going to lose. So, that part was good. That part was really good.”
Despite being out played in the opening half, the Red Bulls managed walk into the locker room with a tie.
Luis Mendoza, who banged a couple of shots off the crossbar in the half, gave Xolos some hope in the 10th minute.
Damian Perez started the sequence with a long ball to Rubio Rubin on the left side. Rubin trapped the ball and slotted a shot pass to Mendoza, who slipped it into the goal for a 1-0 edge. It was only the second goal the Red Bulls have allowed this season and the first during the run of play.
The Red Bulls, however, equalized on a neatly taken counterattack in the 28th minute. Wright-Phillips found tons of space on the right flank as no one on Tijuana tried to defend. BWP found overlapping right back Michael Murillo on the right side and the Panamanian international sent a cross to Tyler Adams, who beat goalkeeper Gibran Lajud.
“We were a little bit shaky,” Marsch said. “I think the team felt the moment and we were a little bit unsure of ourselves. We lacked aggression, we lacked concentration. I’m trying to get them to understand that in big games we can’t have spectators on the field. We have to have total concentration.”
Tijuana won the battle of the woodwork in the first half, 2-1, as Mendzoa came close off the bar with the match only 88 seconds old and in the 23rd minute. Daniel Royer powered a seven-yard attempt off the bar in the eighth minute.
Rzatkowski’s first goal in a Red Bulls uniform lifted the hosts to a 2-1 game lead and an overwhelming 4-1 series advantage in the 70th minute. This time Murillo started the sequence, finding Wright-Phillips. The English striker, who usually scores goals rather than setting them up, gave Rzatkowski a perfect feed for a three-goal margin.
New York was far from finished. In the 76th minute, second-half substitute Gamarra — aka Kaku — also tallied his first goal as a Red Bull, firing on a Wright-Phillips cross from the right flank for a 3-1 margin.
“It was a tough decision at half time whether to play Marc or Kaku,” Marsch said. “We went with Marc because we felt we needed a little bit more of a presence with second balls but then it was easy to see that the game was opening up and now the game required Kaku because his ability in space to make plays is really good.
“When Bradley played the ball across to Kaku I knew it was in. I’ve just seen, watching him enough play games, his technical abilities, ease at slowing down. I’m was hopeful for him because I think he’s continuing to build confidence and belief in being here and that will be very important for us as we continue to grow as a team. So, really happy for Kaku. Really happy.”