Taty Castellanos had two big reasons to smile on Tuesday night. (Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Hours after Valentine’s Day, it turned out to be Valentin’s night.

Valentin (Taty) Castellanos picked where he left off last season on Tuesday night in duplicate.

The 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner struck twice for 10-man New York City FC, which registered a 2-0 victory over Santos de Guapiles in the first leg of the Round of 16 in the Concacaf Champions League.

City was forced to play the final 21 minutes a man down after Santiago Rodriguez was red carded in the 69th minute.

The MLS Cup champions dominated a good portion of the match at Estadio Nacional, a place where the U.S. men’s national team has struggled in the past due to the Ticos’ fervent and intimidating supporters.

But with a sparse crowd at the venue, the crowd was a non-factor.

“I’m very proud and very happy for the performance we had today,” center back Maxime Chanot said. “It wasn’t an easy game, especially because it was the first game of season for us. So congrats to the players today. Now we have to focus on the next round.”

NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila certainly liked what he saw.

“We had control of the game,” he said. “Even though we had 10 men we are really solid and disciplined, compact. So that was very pleasing. Also, the big chances we created as well we had many chances. We should have scored more.”

Deila praised the play of Maxi Moralez, Magno Talles, Castellanos and Rodriguez. Given that this was the team’s first game of the season, the head coach felt City will become one dangerous side.

“When we played through the midfield we created chances all the time,” he said. “They pinned them up every time. They got turned in between the lines so it it’s going be tough for the other teams to defend against us when we when we get more playing [time] together with these players.”

Santos was hampered by the fact it was missing three players, who were unable to obtain work visas to perform in Costa Rica. And, the hosts had but four substitutes on the bench.

The Cityzens came on like gangbusters, forcing the issue early on.

During an offensive-minded fourth minute, they forced goalkeeper Kevin Ruiz to make a pair of bang-bang saves on Talles Magno and Maxi Moralez before Santos defender Michael Barquero was called for a handball in the box.

Castellanos drilled the ensuing penalty toward the left side of the net. Ruiz guessed correctly and got a hand on the ball, but he could not deny the Argentine’s powerful right-footed kick as NYCFC grabbed a 1-0 lead.

In the 22nd minute, Moralez rifled a shot inside the box that bounded down off the crossbar before ricocheting off the top of the woodwork.

Castellanos was at it again on the half hour as he cleaned up in the box. This time the ball deflected off two Santos defenders to the striker, who promptly slotted it home for a two-goal bulge.

A minute into first-half stoppage, Magno came close to finding the scoresheet again, as this time his close-range shot bounced off the left post.

Playing as though it was trailing by two goals instead of leading by that many, the Cityzens came out strong in the second half, but Ruiz was up to the task, denying Nicolas Acevedo in the 56th minute.

Rodriguez was given his marching orders in the 69th minute after a studs-up tackle on Erson Mendez, forcing City to play with 10 men the rest of the way.

“I can’t see how it’s possible to give a red card,” Deila said. “I think he wins the ball. … I can’t understand that you can get a red card in the situation.”

NYCFC had some defensive lapses, but Santos could place only one shot on net. Goalkeeper and team captain Sean Johnson grabbed Douglas Lopez’s shot from distance in the 86th minute as he went on to record a clean sheet.

The Cityzens will enter the second leg at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles on Feb. 23 with a two-goal lead in the aggregate goals series. Four days later, NYCFC kicks off its title defense against the LA Galaxy in Carson, Calif.