The New York Red Bulls topped Leagues Cup Group East 4 to set up a meeting with rival NYCFC on Thursday night. Dante Vanzeir scored two goals against Atletico San Luis in New York's final group stage match.
The New York Red Bulls topped Leagues Cup Group East 4 to set up a meeting with rival NYCFC on Thursday night. Dante Vanzeir scored two goals against Atletico San Luis in New York's final group stage match.

Red Bulls, NYCFC To Meet in Leagues Cup Round of 32

The New York Derby will be returning to Red Bull Arena sooner than expected as the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC will meet each other in the Round of 32 of Leagues Cup on Thursday, August 3rd. The Cityzens were able to reach the knockout round of the competition after finishing second out of three in Group East 3 behind Atlas while the Red Bulls defeated the New England Revolution (on penalties) and Atletico San Luis to top Group East 4 with five points. 

Coming into Leagues Cup, which interrupts the Major League Soccer season for a full month, the Red Bulls were coming off of consecutive losses to top sides FC Cincinnati and Real Salt Lake in need of a boost in confidence if they were to progress through a challenging group in the tournament. With many picking New York to finish third out of three, they defied expectations early on, securing an important point after 90 minutes against the Revolution on Saturday July, 22. 

With the score knotted at zeroes, as per Leagues Cup rules, the game would head straight to penalties with the opportunity for each time to earn an additional point (much like how overtime works in the modern National Hockey League). While it may have felt like a draw, the Red Bulls ultimately secured the second point after beating New England 4-2 in the shootout, in large part due to goalkeeper Carlos Coronel coming up big with a save on Giacomo Vrioni both in the final minute of play and in the shootout. JMi Tolkin would deposit the winning penalty for New York, briefly giving them the position of first place in Group East 4 after matchday 1.

Despite the match taking until penalties for there to be a winner, Red Bulls manager Troy Lesesne was pleased with his team’s performance against one of MLS’s best teams. “I’ve been talking about a complete performance from the group for a few of our media get togethers and even though we don’t score a goal in the 90 minutes, that ultimately would be the complete performance because you win it during the regulation,” Lesesne said. “I have to say the way that we invested throughout 90 minutes and the way that we pressed them and made them uncomfortable was really, really impressive.”

In the group’s second matchday, New England bullied LigaMX’s Atletico San Luis at Gillette Stadium with a 5-1 drubbing, ensuring that New York would need to at least draw San Luis after 90 minutes for a berth in the knockout round, but a win would grant them the top spot. On that fateful Sunday July 30, it would come down to the wire but the Red Bulls were ultimately victorious by a score of 2-1. The Red Bulls thought they had the opening goal just 8 minutes in when midfielder Luquinhas was able to benefit from a loose ball in front of goal, but it would ultimately be whistled back for an offside decision. Similarly, San Luis were denied a first half goal as Venezuelan international Jhon Murillo was sprung in behind for an easy breakaway finish but the winger was just a touch too eager with his run and was also called back for being in an offside position.

The Red Bulls would come flying out of the gates in the second half, though, determined to play for a win in regulation despite only needing to send the match to penalties. New York drew first blood from the corner, having looked dangerous on set pieces all night, as Tolkin’s cross found striker Dante Vanzeir’s head on the near post for a tidy flick-on score to put New York in front in the 56th minute. Vanzeir’s goal marked the first time a striker had scored for the Red Bulls since Elias Manoel scored away at the Columbus Crew on July 1st (five matches across all competitions). The goal could not have come at a better time for both the Red Bulls and Vanzeir himself, who has been struggling to live up to expectations and shouldering the burden of scoring goals for his team. 

Even though they were firmly in the driver’s seat, San Luis would make things very difficult on the Red Bulls when Murillo would get on the end of a loose ball in the box following a spectacular Coronel save to tap home an equalizer in the 69th minute. The Atleticos would surge on from this new found momentum and put the Red Bulls in constant danger, ultimately culminating in a lazy challenge from Tolkin on striker Leo Bonatini that was whistled in the penalty area in the 87th minute. Veteran center back Unai Bilbao was called upon to take the spotkick with an opportunity to send his team through to the knockout round at the expense of the Red Bulls, but once again Carlos Coronel would step up and deny his opponent from the penalty spot, his second such save of the competition.

Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Coronel (1) denies Unai Bilbao’s (20) penalty attempt against Atletico San Luis. It would be Coronel’s second penalty save of the competition.

Going down to his right with two strong hands, Coronel was able to parry away Bilbao’s effort, a tournament saving intervention that sunk San Luis immediately. Without wasting a breath, Tolkin and Vanzeir combined down the other end of the field for their second one-two punch of the contest, giving New York a 2-1 lead in second half stoppage time while Vanzeir earned his first brace as a member of the Red Bulls. It looked like New York added a third through Manoel just moments later, but his breakaway goal was brought back after VAR review determined he committed a foul on Bilbao in the process. 

Either way, the Red Bulls were cruising to the Leagues Cup Round of 32 without having lost a match in group play. Following Sunday’s match, Lesesne recalled the expectations that many were placing on the team prior to the tournament and why it’s important for the Red Bulls to continue this path of success. “I think we all know that coming off of the feeling we have right now and an emotional high, which I told the guys to enjoy even though it wasn’t exactly the perfect script of where we thought it would be when we were up 1-0 up to win the group. We still won the group and no one had us winning the group,” Lesesne said. “So I think that that’s something that’s very important to say, and say that’s a good accomplishment.”

Red Bulls fans celebrate after taking the lead late against Atletico San Luis to confirm their berth in the Leagues Cup knockout round.

Vanzeir was happy to make a statement of his own with his performance, scoring for the first time since June 21st against Charlotte FC. “It’s amazing, it’s my job, so when I can’t score in a game, even if I play good, it’s kind of disappointing. I feel great, I was waiting a little bit for my goal and especially for a brace,” Vanzier said. “Let’s hope this is the start of many more.” Despite remaining humble about his own contributions to New York’s recent success, Tolkin shared Vanzeir’s praise of his performance.  “This guy has hit full stride and we’re really seeing what he’s about and why he’s worth the money we got him for. So I’m super happy for him and he deserves all the success.”

Red Bulls defender JMi Tolkin (47, left) and striker Dante Vanzeir (13, right) embrace after Vanzeir’s second goal against Atletico San Luis on Sunday. Tolkin assisted both goals.

The Red Bulls are at a season high in confidence at the moment, but that may also be true of their next opponent, crosstown rival NYCFC who, despite not finishing first in their group, are playing some of their best soccer all year long, narrowly losing to Atlas before dominating Toronto FC to a 5-0 rout at Red Bull Arena in group play. Additionally, New York City will have added motivation after falling 1-0 to the Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in MLS play on May 13. 

Both sides sit on the outside of the current MLS Cup Playoff picture and have each made a commitment to performing well in Leagues Cup not only for the prizes involved in the competition, but also to regain form before making a playoff push. Nothing would raise spirits and motivation higher than eliminating your local rival in a continental cup competition. And now, for the first time outside of the US Open Cup and MLS regular season play, New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls will meet with never before seen consequences on the line. For the winner, there is a date in the Round of 16 with either the Philadelphia Union or DC United and for the loser, there is three weeks of time to think about what went wrong before the MLS regular season returns.