The New York Red Bulls came out of their MLS season opener with a point on the road against the Columbus Crew with a lineup that clearly shows where head coach Chris Armas has his focus.
The CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against Club Santos Laguna of Liga MX (Mexico) starts on Tuesday at home with the team looking to reach the competition’s semi final for the second year in a row. For their opponent, this is the sixth time tournament regular Santos has taken part and its first appearance since 2015-16.
It’s important to note just how big the gap is between the Mexican side and New York’s first opponent, Club Atlético Pantoja. For that, lets see how Santos got here and what its strengths are.
Know Thy Enemy
Club Santos Laguna S.A. de C.V. are a Mexican soccer team from the city of Torreón, Coahuila in the northern part of the country. The team was founded in 1983, goes by countless nicknames (such as Los Laguneros [The Lakers], Los Verdiblancos [The Green-and-Whites], or Los Guerreros [The Warriors]), and currently play in Liga MX, the top tier of Mexican soccer, where they have been since 1988 without relegation.
As a top five club in their native country with fierce support it’s no surprise that Santos has drawn in a wealth of talent to Estadio Corona, its’ home ground, over the years. This ranges from national team players such as Oswaldo Sánchez (former Mexican National team goalkeeper from 1996 until 2011 who helped the squad win two CONCACAF Gold Cups) along with iconic league features such as Jared Borgetti (who scored over 200 goals with the club and remains the team’s all-time best scorer) and Oribe Peralta (a forward who currently plays for Club América and whose considered one of the best striker’s of this generation).
The team has also performed very well on the pitch during its history winning the Clausura four times (08’, 12’, 15’, and 18’). It’s 2018 victory, which saw the team beat Deportivo Toluca F.C. in the final, 3-2 on aggregate, is how the group qualified for the SCCL this year.
A quick lesson on how Liga MX operates. The football season is split into two tournaments; the Apertura (opening tournament) and the Clausura (closing tournament). The best teams in each qualify for that tournament’s playoff, called the Liguilla, which is played in two leg series until a winner is crowned. The winners of both tournaments sometimes meet in a one-game playoff match called the Campeón de Campeones to crown a true champion. Santos has won this trophy once in 2015 when it beat Apertura champion Club América, 1-0.
Santos has also won two more league titles while the tournaments were under different names. The Invierno (Apertura) in 1996 and Verano (Clausura) in 2001.
It’s easy to see that Los Laguneros have become a powerhouse in their home country, winning a league title once every four years or so for the past near decade. Even in it’s Round of 16 series last month the team showed its strength by easily advancing past C.D. Marathón of Honduras, 11-2 on aggregate, including a hat trick by forward Javier Marcelo Correa in the first leg. But what exactly do they excel at?
How Do They Match-Up?
Over the last three completed Liga MX tournaments (Apertura 2017, Clausura 2018, and Apertura 2018) Santos has been on a rising track. In the 2017 Apertura the team finished 14 out of 18 teams, a full six points out of making the playoffs. In the following two tournaments, the team’s offense has kicked into high gear scoring the second most goals for any team that made the playoffs (56) both times.
One player in particular that New York needs to look out for is forward Julio Furch, who scored only 5 goals for the club in the 2017-18 Liga MX season and has already scored 16 across all competitions this year including one in each of the SCCL games. He’s become the star on his team’s offense and has a solid set of supporting players who trail him by about seven goals and two assists in the team’s stats this season.
In that way there is a similarity to New York. Last year, the two main goalscorers for the Bulls were Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer, with their 40 combined goals out totaling the next 15 top goalscorers combined. It’s not shocking to have a star player on a team, but Santos’ depth runs past Furch and into players such as Correa or the recently departed (from the club) forward Jonathan Rodríguez. Even with Rodríguez gone his spot has been filled multiple times over.
That’s why I solely believe Santos has the edge on New York in terms of offense. It scores a lot and has a lot of ways to do so – and it did it 11 times in the Round of 16.
What’s interesting though is Los Guerreros’ defense. The team has averaged giving up about 20 goals per tournament the last three cycles. Even with the terrible finish back in 2017 that was mentioned before, the team didn’t let in many more goals than it did in a tournament where it won the title. While the offense has been drastically improving, the defense keeps staying at a similar level – never truly getting better or worse. It’s the same sort of defense that can win a championship or finish near the bottom of the table.
I think that makes it a wildcard factor. As discussed in the last OVERVIEW article here on New York Sports Nation, RBNY was a defense laden powerhouse in 2018. The team only allowed 33 goals over 34 games during the Major League Soccer regular season, a league best for 2018. With an off-season filled with new additions in the midfield and the backline, along with the recent Round of 16 shutout over its Dominican Republic opponent across two games, 2019 looks like that trend can continue.
When faced with a middle of the table defense I think New York has the edge in that regard. Looking at the ongoing Clausura tournament results only strengthens my believe in this. Of the current playoff teams halfway through the season, Club Santos sits tied for both sixth on the table and for second most goals allowed for a team in playoff position with 10.
No game is ever a cakewalk and both teams will realize this soon enough. Both have already shown they can be home or away and get multi-goal results in this competition. This will be a battle between a great offense with a lot of power and a shield winning defense. While the saying goes that defense wins championships, no where does it say that a solid backline can hold of a Liga MX side forever.
Seeing as how the first game at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday will be a frigid, sub 20 degree night it might be easy to say that this sort temperature shift will put the first leg into New York’s favor. While that may be true, the Atlanta United v. C.S. Herediano and Tigres UANL v. Deportivo Saprissa in the Round of 16 showed that any lead, big or small, isn’t safe when you change venues.
The best way this can play out for New York is the following: Head into a freezing Red Bull Arena and catch Club Santos off guard early while they’re still adjusting. There is the added benefit that the team missed it’s flight yesterday due to storms, so it has had less time to prepare in this environment. We can see from just this season alone, and factoring in previous Liga MX campaigns, that while the team is one of it’s leagues power houses the defense is pretty standard. RBNY needs to keep pressure on the backline and Jonathan Orozco through 90 minutes, build a big enough lead heading into the second leg, and use the same defense that won the team the Supporters’ Shield last year to hold off a crowd energized Santos at Estadio Corona.
I mentioned that the defense is average on this Santos squad so it is possible these games are reversed with the constant pressure coming in the second leg. But on the road in Mexico and seeing the great opportunity available for New York in leg one given the weather / circumstances makes it hard to imagine that.
For Santos, the best way this can play out is to just hammer the backline of Connor Lade, Tim Parker and Aaron Long. Star defender Michael Murillo will not play in the first leg due to accumulating two yellows over the course of the first two games in the SCCL and while it isn’t a automatic dream killer it is a worry against a squad that can score.
If Los Guerreros can get into a groove on offense and knock back a few away goals against Luis Robles in the first leg, it will be huge undertaking for New York to head on the road and even the odds in an environment like Estadio Corona.