The New York Red Bulls knew it would take something special to take any sort of positives from Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League visit to Club Tijuana. Instead, they received something more than special: a goalkeeping performance bordering on superhuman and, ultimately, a massive advantage heading into the second leg.
Thanks to a whopping 13 saves from Man of the Match Luis Robles, the Red Bulls went to Tijuana and knocked off Xolos, 2-0, on a pair of Bradley Wright-Phillips finishes. With the win, the Red Bulls became just the third MLS team to ever win in Mexico, joining the 2011 FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders teams as the only ones to come away victorious from a trip south of the border.
Much of the credit, and rightfully so, falls to Robles, who looked all but unbeatable throughout Tuesday’s match. In a game that saw Xolos create chance after chance, Robles made every save from the routine to the spectacular in what was certainly one of the best goalkeeping efforts in recent memory.
“Our two big leaders, Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips, come up big in this game,” Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch said after the match. “Luis made save after save after save. He’s a great goalie. We know he’s capable of that and we see it every week.
“It wasn’t just the saves but the poise under pressure. I think he set the tone for our team to not panic and, even though we were under a lot of pressure, to manage ourselves appropriately. Luis was fantastic.”
It took just nine minutes for the Red Bulls to get going on Wright-Phillips’ first goal of the game, one that Robles said set a tone for the evening. The Red Bulls very much understood the importance of starting fast, and getting into an early rhythm that resulted in a goal that the Red Bulls thought could put Club Tijuana on the back foot.
In some ways, it did, but in others, it only woke Xolos up more. From that point on, the hosts fired shot after shot on goal while dominating with a total of 61 percent of possession throughout the match. Fortunately for the Red Bulls, Robles continues to make save after save, keeping the scoreline in the MLS side’s favor.
But it wasn’t just Robles. Wright-Phillips stepped up in a big match, adding his second goal in the 67th minute on an assist from newcomer Florian Valot, one of seven Homegrown or Red Bulls II products to see the field on Tuesday. Tim Parker stepped right into defense alongside Aaron Long for his first match with the club and turned in a solid performance despite just joining up with the team.
“Very early on when Tim collided with me, it woke me up,” Robles said. “When you look at the performance that the guys gave, from Brad all the way to the back, the way they were sacrificing their body, doing everything they could to get in front of it.
“When you look at tonight, it’s one of those nights when everyone has to do their job and, looking at the performance, everyone did their job.”
It wasn’t a perfect day, though. Sean Davis picked up a yellow card in the match, earning a suspension for the return leg at Red Bull Arena. In the second half, the Red Bulls were forced to manage the game a bit more due to the varying fitness levels, and the mach got heated because of it.
A total of six yellow cards were issued, including a pair late to Derrick Etienne and Tijuana’s Damian Perez for an argument that ended in a bit of pushing and shoving.
“One of the messages that Jesse told us before the game as he gave us our gameplan was to be composed,” Robles said. “There were going to be moments where the crowd was going to be into it. It’s easy for us to lose our composure, but if we can find a way to stay disciplined, stay composed, stay calm, then we can see this out, and that’s exactly what happened tonight.
“These games, a lot of times, have emotion,” Marsch added. “There’s a lot on the line with two games and a lot of pride. You’ll see this in all of the Liga MX-MLS matchups. You’ll see a lot of pride on the line, and rightfully so. For the most part tonight, we kept our discipline.”
The return leg at Red Bull Arena will require more discipline and another big effort. If Tuesday’s match showed anything, it’s that Club Tijuana has the firepower and the quality to create chances. Unfortunately for them, Robles was there to make sure they couldn’t finish them.
The two-goal Red Bulls lead is massive, but Marsch says there’s more work to be done.
“When we came down here, we knew it was going to take a big effort, and we knew it would take a little luck,” Marsch said. “We had to hang on. We needed our goalkeeper to come up with some big saves. We needed our defenders to empty the tank and give everything they had.
“It’s a wonderful result for us, but it’s only halftime,” he added. “This is far from over, and we know going back to Red Bull Arena, we’re going to have a very tough match again.”