In Concacaf, expect the unexpected.
That’s generally the rule of thumb for club or country and it relates to everything on the road — from the hotel accommodations to the condition of the locker room, to the rowdy fans, to unpredictable referees and playing surfaces.
“When theres international competition, theres another element, its the feel of a World Cup qualifier where those players are playing for pride and the country behind them and something you can’t quantify,” New York Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said in a conference call from the Dominican Republic Tuesday afternoon.
There’s a lot of unknown for the Red Bulls ahead of their 2019 Concacaf Champions League opener against Atletico Pantoja Wednesday night in Santo Domingo. The opponent, a CCL debutant, is in its preseason and under the direction of a new coach, who has brought in 14 new players ahead of this year’s campaign.
The condition of Estadio Olímpico Félix Sánchez is also a question mark. The Red Bulls arrived in the Dominican Republic on Monday and were scheduled to go through their walkthrough at the 27,000-seat stadium on Tuesday afternoon.
Armas said the field is listed as 120×80, but he has his reservations, thinking it will be significantly more narrow with grass that will likely not be cut as low as Red Bull Arena.
“Listen, it will not be perfect,” Armas said. “We’ve been training for that. We’ve been trying to mimic some of what to expect in that way. It will be far from perfect, but we’ll be ready.”
What the Red Bulls do know is how to navigate through the murky waters of the CCL. A year ago, they reached the semifinals where they fell to eventual champion Chivas de Guadalajara. On the way, they managed road results in Costa Rica (technically a neutral game against Olimpia of Honduras) and Mexico against Club Tijuana.
That experience, Armas believes, will be monumental in this year’s tournament.
“We’ve gone deep in the Champions League, deep in the Open Cup, deep in the MLS playoffs and those games all fall in a certain bucket,” Armas said. “I think those experiences, the deep run, will pay dividends and I think we’ll see it right away tomorrow night.”
Armas also thinks he’s got a team this year better situated to battle on multiple fronts simultaneously. The starting XI from last year is largely intact. The big exception, of course, is Tyler Adams in the midfield.
Armas highlighted Sean Davis, who he said had an “amazing preseason,” Marc Rzatkowski and Cristian Casseres as players who will fill the void left by Adams, who has hit the ground running at RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga.
One player who will not start Wednesday night is Kemar Lawrence, the MLS Best XI left back. The Jamaican international suffered an MCL injury that forced him to miss the two-legged Eastern Conference final series against Atlanta United, but will be on the bench as an available substitute. His next start is “in the very near future,” according to Armas.
“He’s strong, he’s healthy, he’s tackling. Kemar is back,” Armas said. “We’re just managing workloads and bringing him along the right way from a fitness standpoint and then thinking about the big picture that we don’t want to push him too fast into 90 minutes.”
New signing Mathias Jørgensen will also not compete in the opening leg. The Danish forward is still awaiting his visa, but Armas said he’s anxious to get the 18-year-old acclimated immediately.
“The goal has been all along to get him here as quick as possible and with the big picture in mind to make sure we bring him along in the right way. … We have to see him within our team and how he fits in,” Armas said. “Do we start to really look at two forwards, is he a wider guy, as we rotate he can play by himself up top. We’ve considered a lot of different ways to use Mathias. He becomes one of the weapons we have up the field.”