New York Red Bulls midfielder Marc Rzatkowski, second from right, jumps on Sean Davis after Davis scored a goal against Olimpia during the second half of a CONCACAF Champions League soccer match, Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
HARRISON, NJ — Three years ago, Sean Davis was practically at the bottom of the New York Red Bulls central midfield depth chart.
Above him were Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty and Felipe.
“He was wondering if he was ever going to get his shot,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said.
McCarty and Kljestan were traded away in each of the last two years and Marsch all but admitted on Thursday night Felipe is being dealt imminently.
But at Red Bull Arena, there was Davis, playing a critical role in the Red Bulls 2-0 win over Olimpia of Honduras in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16.
Davis scored the insurance goal after Bradley Wright-Phillips gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead in the 54th minute as the Red Bulls advanced 3-1 on aggregate.
“Sean is a big player here, he’s becoming a big leader,” Marsch said. “He has flexibility to his game, he’s so smart tactically with the way he does things. He’s very coachable, he always listens, he thinks about how to get better. He’s earned everything he’s gotten since he’s been at this club. He’s not been handed anything. He’s had to work for it all the time.”
Coming off the heels of what Marsch called his team’s best preseason yet, fitness was there for the Red Bulls, even if the tactical sharpness was understandably lacking. Still, they took the game to Olimpia from the opening kickoff and were unfortunate to head into the locker room scoreless at halftime.
Marsch said he was impressed with his team’s compactness and the Red Bulls got the goal they deserved when, after a turnover in midfield, Wright-Phillips turned into space and beat Olimpia goalkeeper Donis Escobar with a low shot from 24 yards out.
Ten minutes later, Davis clinched his team’s spot in the quarterfinals. Tyler Adams spun on the end line before passing back out to Davis, who took two touches and stepped over the ball before his deflected shot found the back of the net.
“I saw the team was shifting toward the outside of the field,” Davis said. “It created a little space for me at the top of the box. From that standpoint, I just wanted to slow myself down. I was confident I could create a little space and from there I just wanted to pull the trigger.”
Davis was just one the Red Bulls standouts in the midfield. Marsch was thrilled with the performance Marc Rzatkowski put forth even if a tactical shift to five defenders in the second half left him a bit confused about his tactical assignment.
Still, Marsch loved the German’s ability to close down space and “make sure he’s ball-orientated at all times.”
Wright-Phillips was also impressed.
“Baller. He was very good today,” he said. “He was good on the ball, slowed it down when we needed to slow it down and he was creating things up the field. He was very good today.”
Luis Robles was solid for the Red Bulls, one of the Red Bulls three best players in the aggregate series, according to Marsch, joining Tyler Adams and Aaron Long.
Those three players, and the rest of the team, will have to be even better for the challenge Club Tijuana from Liga MX will pose in the quarterfinals.
“I’m glad that we got two competitive games under our belt so we got fitness up, we got sharpness up, we felt the pressure of a big game and now it will be put to the test,” Marsch said. “I know we’re all excited about the challenge.”