With the new year already in full swing, the New York Red Bulls have a lot of possible New Year’s Resolutions. For now, the first box might be to start off strong in the 2019 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.
The team will be playing the 2018 CONCACAF Caribbean Club Championship champions Club Atlético Pantoja on February 20 and 27 in 2019, with the latter being home in Harrison.
Since this might be the first time many fans hear about Pantoja, it might help to take a moment and learn more about their road to the Champions League and them in 2018.
Know Thy Enemy
Atlético Pantoja, based in the city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, plays in Liga Dominicana de Fútbol, the top professional league in the country since 2015. Pantoja, known better as Los Guerreros (The Warriors), were founded in 2000 and since then have become one of the top teams in the country. The club has won championships in every league that its played in since its founding, totaling six league titles in 19 years.
Like Major League Soccer and other North American leagues, the LDF is separated into a regular season and playoff postseason. Los Guerreros have made the playoffs every year since 2015, and have reached the final on two occasions (2015 and 2017). In both these instances, the team has played Atlántico FC – winning the inaugural 2015 season final, 2-2 (3:1 on penalty kicks), and coming up short in 2017, 1-1 (4:3 on penalty kicks).
While it was unable to raise the trophy in its latest final appearance, this would be the first step in leading the team to the CONCACAF Champions League.
This result earned the team a birth into the 2018 Flow CONCACAF Caribbean Club Championship, an international club competition between the champions and runners-up of the top professional and semi-professional leagues in the Caribbean Football Union (CFU). Eight teams were invited to compete from four countries, and were divided into two groups of four teams.
In the group stage of the tournament, Pantoja went undefeated picking up two wins and a draw (7 pts) to top its group. The four remaining teams then advance to the knockout stage of the competition, where The Warriors would face Jamaican side and previous CFU winner (05’) Portmore United in the semifinals.
In their most highly contested match so far in the tournament, the team had to contend with a foe who never let a lead last for long. A goal from Pantoja’s forward Luis Espinal in the 24th minute was matched by a Portmore goal in the 27th. Only three minutes later, Pantoja center back Eduardo Centeno put his team up with a leaping header off a corner kick, but was once again matched after defensive miscommunication lead to a open net goal in the 34th to even the score at two each. The Warriors would get the last laugh of the first half though as a second goal from Espinal in stoppage time, 45+1, would give his team the lead heading into halftime, 3-2, and cap off a spree of five goals over 26 minutes.
The second half was a much more defensive oriented game, with both sides struggling for position. Portmore would get another tying goal in the 52nd off another set piece header, but a second goal from Centeno in the 69th would end up being the game winner as the team held on, 4-3.
The final was a group stage rematch between the Dominican squad and Arnett Gardens, a side from Jamaican who had given Pantoja its only draw so far. Both of these teams have history dating back to Pantajo’s first appearance in the tournament back in 2016. The Jamaican squad eliminated Los Guerreros at home in the group stage by scoring a late, 80th minute goal in the final group game – securing advancement for them and elimination for the hosts.
The 2018 final proved once again how well these teams matched up, as neither could get a foot hold during the 90 minutes and eventual added 30 minutes of extra time.
With penalty kicks needed to determine a champion, both teams went four for five on attempts to make it sudden death. After another round of successful attempts from both teams, Pantajo’s own goalkeeper Miguel Odalis Báez stepped up for a shot in the 7th round and sunk a high kick past the Arnett keeper. Báez then took his place back in goal, diving to the right as the next attempted rolled wide of the net giving his team the win, 0-0 (6:5 on PKs).
This not only clinched the team the CFU title, the club’s first international championship, but also a birth into the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time in its history.
How do they match-up?
To compare two teams in two very different types of leagues can be a challenge, but looking at the 2018 results for both New York Red Bulls and Atlético Pantoja may help paint a better picture of both. What each did well and what they fell short on.
For the Bulls, 2018 was a standout year as one of the defensive powerhouses in MLS. The team only allowed 33 goals over 34 games, a league best with the Seattle Sounders FC coming in second with 37. It’s no surprise to see how with the defensive duo of Aaron Long, who won Defender of the Year in 2018, and Tim Parker, a member of recent Team USA squads. Take on a Kemar Lawrence and still fresh faced Michael Murillo and you’ve got a well coordinated back-end group that suffocates opposing offenses before they have the chance to put the ball into Luis Robles’ hands. Offense was also incredibly good, with the 5th most goals scored all season (62) behind the feet of newly 100+ career goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer.
A short, 1,534 mile swim to the Dominican Republic has Club Atlético Pantoja which finished its shorter 2018 season (22 games compared to MLS’s 34) with a record of 14-3-5 and a third place finish in the overall table. Like New York, the team was a powerhouse on defense all season – only allowing 20 goals which is tied for season best. The team conceded about 1.14 goals per game which would normally be pretty healthy, but on the opposite side of the pitch the offense only averaged 1.45 goals a game. A healthy defense could only get the team to third in the table without an offense to capitalize and push them the extra mile.
Both the Red Bulls and The Warriors reached the penultimate round of their respective playoffs, and both fell to eventual champions. Pantoja lost both of its games to Cibao FC, 3-2, while the Red Bulls spit its series with Atlanta United but fell on goal differential, 3-1.
Pantoja vs Red Bulls will be an interesting match-up come February. Both sides got where they are now thanks to great defense and Bulls fans probably think back to the nail biting win against Orlando City SC, 1-0, on Decision Day to confirm that. The difference being that the team’s play in very different environments and on different scales. What may be a defense that can defeat Caribbean teams or do well in a small league like the LDF isn’t the same defense that wins Supporter Shields.
Combine that with the fact that Red Bulls’ offense, even when factoring in the 12 extra games, has been more consistent and prolific on a game-by-game basis and should give New York the edge. But at the end of the day, early season competition games like this, especially with leg 1 on the road, can be unpredictable and changes to the roster will also need to be addressed in order to keep team chemistry. Otherwise an early deficit on the road may be hard to recover from.
EDIT: Article originally stated incorrectly that Club Atlético Pantoja had only reached the Liga Dominicana de Fútbol final once in 2017. This was false and as been updated to include the team’s 2015 final appearance and win. Also added additional information regarding the club.