On the same day millions of people celebrated Independence Day in the Dominican Republic, the New York Red Bulls defeated Club Atlético Pantoja, the country’s sole representation in the 2019 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, 3-0 (5-0 on Aggregate), at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 27 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the competition.

Pantoja, also known as Los Guerreros (The Warriors in English), exits its debut CCL without scoring a single goal and only getting eight shots off across 180 minutes of game time while the Red Bulls advanced to their second straight quarterfinal appearance. The MLS side also continues its’ unbeaten streak in CCL matches at home, raising the number to nine across multiple competitions.

Unlike last week’s game, New York started strong and didn’t give the D.R. team many chances during the 90 minutes. The starting backline of Tim Parker, Connor Lade, Aaron Long and Michael Murillo kept the Warriors in check early on and their replacements continued that trend later on. The defense’s work even ensured that the visiting side was not able to get a shot off until the second half. When Pantoja forward Luis Espinal was finally able to get a shot off for his team in the 51st minute, it was quickly blocked and picked up by a nimble Murillo who was a standout of the night.

The scoring started early for New York with a rebound header by midfielder Sean Davis in the 27th minute from the right side of the box. Davis, whose goal against Honduran side Olimpia in last year’s CCL helped his team advance to the quarterfinals for the first time ever, was in the right place at the right time to smash in the goalkeeper’s block with his head.

A trip in the Pantoja box a few minutes later by midfielder Darly Batista gave New York a penalty kick opportunity, which midfielder Daniel Royer sunk in the 32nd minute for his second goal in as many CCL games.

PAN CCL 2019
Club Atlético Pantoja from the Dominican Republic ends its’ debut Champions League Campaign with a loss on the road. (CREDIT: CONCACAF)

While the first leg in this Round of 16 series could be described as a defensive battle, Pantoja brought a more physical style of play into Harrison. Two yellow cards, including one on Batista for the trip, and multiple warnings were all given by the officials during the frigid first 45.

Speaking on the cold through a translator in the post game press conference, Pantoja’s head coach Oliver Mendoza admitted the change in weather from his squad’s standard environment was a factor.

“Dealing with the cold coming from the Dominican Republic is very difficult,” Mendoza said. “But we continued to improve throughout the game, improved our lines and, more than anything, improved our attitude. In the second half we were better. I believe that is one of our strengths is that we continue to find ways to improve.”

Despite the difficulties, Mendoza emphasized he was extremely proud of his team and had high hopes for the regular season ahead of them in the First Division of the Dominican Republic.

The second half saw a more compelling attack from the Warriors. While New York retained possession of the game, the visiting team ensured its last 45 minutes in the competition for 2019 were not wasted. Similar to last week’s game, a majority of the team’s best play came in the later stages of the game. Of Atlético’s four shots, three were on goal and needed to be intercepted by a New York player including a save from Luis Robles.

A foul committed early in the half by Murillo earned him his second yellow of the competition, meaning he will miss the first leg of the Red Bulls next CCL series next week.

RBNY head coach Chris Armas’ squad began subbing out players, including the card carrying Murillo who was latter awarded Man of the Match for his efforts. While the ball began to fluctuate between the two sides a little more the Bulls’ offense still had clear control. Overall New York took 16 shots during the game, four times as many as its opponent,  with only five being off target.

Even with the Major League Soccer season opener against Columbus Crew this Saturday, and with the possibility of another CCL match next week, Armas played a full strength squad for this game.

In the post game press conference Armas explained that while his team took the game seriously he also knows that the group is still getting ready for the long season ahead.

“We’re still in a bit of a preseason mode in terms of fitness and sharpness” Armas said. “So using the game we have to take care of business and not take anything for granted. We come in with a two goal lead against a team like Pantoja, it can change quickly. We had to put our guys out there that we thought could put it in our terms quickly.”

He went on to say that he believes the lineup reflects his thoughts for his team’s opponent: Respect.

“We have a lot of respect for (our) opponent,” Armas said when asked about the growth of soccer play in CONCACAF – including the feat accomplished by Panamanian side Independiente as they advanced past fellow MLS side Toronto FC on Tuesday night, 5-1 on aggregate. “Years ago when I was on the national team as a player there seemed to be Mexico and the U.S… there was a bit of a gap. By the time I started to the time I ended the gap was narrowing. I think with football around the world this is the case, but in CONCACAF I think it’s really the case.

“You can see (a team from) the Dominican Republic step on the field and you can see the tactics (and) the plan,” Armas continued. “There’s a lot of respect for them as a staff and as a soccer team that is more than capable… It keeps us moving forward too and forces us to be better.”

Another goal by Andreas Ivan in the 75th minute, the first in his young career with New York, was the finishing blow as the game came eventually reached its end as Robles finished the series with another clean sheet.

The team will now face Mexican side Club Santos Laguna next Tuesday, March 5, at Red Bull Arena for the first leg of the quarter finals. The start time and more information will be released in the coming days. The Liga MX side advanced to the quarters with a win on Wednesday against Honduran side C.D. Marathón, 5-0 (11-2 on aggregate).

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