Boasting one of MLS’s top defenses in 2019 with just 42 goals allowed, NYCFC proved airtight against San Carlos. Just two shots made it on goal for Los Toros del Norte, neither passing Sean Johnson.
On the offensive side, NYCFC was rather wasteful. With Heber resting with the season opener around the corner, the attacking movement of New York lacked the finishing touch.
In the 41st minute, City managed to convert. With halftime approaching, Alexandru Mitrita sent an inswinging corner into the box. Alexander Callens was the first to react, darting in front of goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton and sending it into the net.
NYCFC took a 6-3 lead on aggregate into halftime as Callens scored his second of the competition in similar fashion to his goal in the first leg.
Tempers flared late in the second half. A ball sent down the sideline was chased down by New York’s Gary Mackay-Steven. A late challenge by defender Pablo Arboine brought down the attacker, earning the San Carlos man a yellow card.
Ronny Deila did not appreciate the dangerous tackle, getting in the face of Arboine and giving him a light push which emptied the benches. Deila walked away with a yellow of his own as the officiating crew intervened.
The rest of the match played out without much further controversy, and NYCFC walked off 1-0 winners, bound for the Champions League quarterfinals
A high scoring affair in Mexico between Tigres UANL and El Salvadorian Alianza would determine NYC’s opponent. Tigres led the match 3-2 at the half, but Alianza led on away goals after winning 2-1 in the first leg.
Deep in stoppage time, goalkeeper Nahuel Guzmán went forward for a free kick. With one of the final actions of the game, Guzmán got free and headed home the winner for Tigres. El Estadio Universitario erupted as the Mexican club pulled ahead 5-4 on aggregate and advanced to the quarterfinal round.
Tigres will travel to New York next week, taking on NYCFC at Red Bull Arena. With Yankee Stadium and Citi Field still not cleared by CONCACAF, the MLS club is once again forced to rent their rival’s stadium for the international competition.
With the San Carlos match sparsely attended, NYCFC hopes for a larger turnout for the match against a dangerous Liga MX club. The first leg will be played on March 11, before the clubs head to Mexico for the return leg on the 18.
With the quarterfinals set, NYCFC’s attention had to rapidly shift to the season opener in Columbus. With only a bit of rest, NYC’s stamina underwent an early test.
“I don’t think we can take this as an excuse,” said defender Maxime Chanot. “We know this season is going to be a long one with MLS, the Open Cup, and the Champions League. I think we’re good enough to compete in all three. We’ll be ready on Sunday to compete against Columbus.”
Just three minutes into the match, Chanot saw an early exit. A ball played over the top fell under the control of Columbus debutant Lucas Zelarayán, one of the few Liga MX players to transfer to MLS this winter.
The former Tigres midfielder had his heel clipped by Chanot, the last defender. In one of the season’s early controversial calls, referee Ramy Touchan reached for his back pocket, giving Chanot a red card for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.
NYCFC’s game plan shifted into a defensive effort with the club down to 10 men for 87 minutes. An unrelenting NYC defense was able to hold back Columbus’s attack, but it was only a matter of time before a chance was converted.
Zelarayán spun into space, tucking a shot into the top corner from close range. City was unable to turn the tables late in the match and suffered a loss to open up the MLS season.
“I believe we can be better. Having said that, we haven’t really started yet, we have to handle ups and downs,” Deila remarked following the match against San Carlos. “It’s important that we are stars, not fireflies. You can’t be good one day and then be gone, you have to do it over and over again.”