When the Five Stripes defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they lifted MLS Cup in front of an announced 73,000 fans and the Red Bulls clinched a berth in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League for the fifth time in club history.
The Red Bulls will face Atlético Pantoja from the Dominican Republic in the Round of 16 in February. Winners of the Concacaf Caribbean Club Championship, Los Guerreros will host the opening leg at the 27,000-seat Estadio Olímpico Félix Sánchez in Santo Domingo.
A year ago, the Red Bulls defeated Olimpia from Honduras and then Club Tijuana, becoming the first MLS team to win a knockout stage match in Mexico, to reach the semifinals for the first time where they fell to eventual champion Chivas Guadalajara.
They called the experience of playing high-pressure games that early in the MLS season beneficial in their run to a third Supporters’ Shield title in six years, capping a record-breaking regular season.
“We wanted to be the first MLS team to ever bring it home,” defender Aaron Long said. “We would love the opportunity to go after it again and we would come out swinging. Tournaments like that in the beginning of the year, especially being successful, just gives your team so much confidence and sets yourself up for success”
And at the Red Bulls end-of-season media availability, players talked about the importance of returning to the CCL after their deep run in the spring.
“Of course you want to play in the Champions League. I think that was great experience this season, going to Mexico and playing in Costa Rica against a Honduran team,” Red Bulls winger Danny Royer said. “We definitely want to do that again and get on a run in the Champions League again. That was a great experience for everyone. The more competitions you play in, the better it is for a player.”
Bradley Wright-Phillips said he had no plans on watching MLS Cup, but he was all for any result that meant another shot at the Champions League was good for him.
“I won’t lie to you, it’s a hard competition to be in with the traveling and the amount of games and whatever but, if you’re one of the best teams in the league, you’ve got to do these kind of things,” Wright-Phillips said. “I think credit to the squad, we rotated a lot and everyone had a part to play. I enjoyed being in the Champions League and I do feel that being that close, we were so close to winning that thing, I definitely can’t wait to hopefully be back.”
There are also reported financial benefits in terms of General Allocation Money for the Red Bulls, but that’s more for Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett and others who crunch the numbers in the front office.
For the players, its about winning trophies and more lifetime memories.
“It’s a really fun competition. It’s something that every player wants to play in, going up against Central American sides and then hopefully top Mexican teams,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “Those are some of the best memories of the year, winning that game in Tijuana and even playing against Chivas in Chivas. Those are moments that I’ll always remember.”