Germany Soccer Champions League

Dominant performance sees Bayern Munich make strides to open title defense

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If you’re the type to look for smudges on a Rubens, there were two complaints you could make about Bayern Munich ahead of today’s UEFA Champions League opener. They don’t seem as good as last year, your case would start, but given they posted a +80 goal difference in league, some regression was inevitable. More indicting: The adjustment they’re undergoing under Pep Guardiola leaving teams too close, and while they’re dominating games and rarely giving up chances, they’ve often kept teams within one defensive error or well-executed counter attack of getting a result. (This is where I reference the Freiburg result for the 86th time).

Tuesday’s 3-0 over CSKA Moscow addressed both of those concerns, but the extent to which they answered the critiques depends on how you view early goals. David Alaba, summoning the same fortune that saw him score in last year’s Champions League against Gianluigi Buffon, curved a third minute free kick off Igor Afineev’s hands and into CSKA’s goal. With the lead, Bayern didn’t have to expose their defense or press as they would have while needing a goal. With 87 minutes left to play, Bayern not only had their earliest lead of the season but also a scoreline particularly advantageous to their ball-hogging style.

[MORE: Champions League Roundup: Upsets give way to goals.]

It’s easy to dispel that theory, thought. Just note that Bayern, after going up one, didn’t change their approach. And for most of the match, CSKA didn’t either. They couldn’t afford to. The fourth minute is too early to change, open up, and start chasing the match. That would have been a recipe for something worse than a 3-0 loss.

What we’re left with is Bayern’s most impressive performance of the season: A controlling, multi-goal victory; against a quality opponent; in an unquestionably meaningful game (as opposed to the German or UEFA Super Cups). Monopolizing possession (69 percent), dominating shots (20-8), and dwarfing their opponent’s shots on goal (9-2), Bayern played out Guardiola’s vision to perfection. And they did so without Javi Martinez, Mario Götze, or a fully healthy Bastian Schweinsteiger.

source: AP
Arjen Robben, who scored Bayern’s third goal today against CSKA, has scored 14 Champions League goals since moving to Munich in the summer of 2009. (Photo: AP Photo.)

People may dismiss the performance because of the opposition, but it’s be better to say CSKA had a bad day. Or Bayern are always capable of posting this type of performance at home (ask Barcelona). The Russians have a normally world class goalkeeper, experienced defense, a quality central midfielder (Pontus Wernbloom) and two legitimately dangerous players in attack: Japanese international Keisuke Honda and Nigerian international Ahmed Musa. They were without Alan Dzageov, often their best player in recent years, but with CSKA seeing very little of the ball in Munich, the young Russian wouldn’t have helped them today.

This was the type of performance Guardiola may have been waiting for: A proof of concept that can propel the team forward. The one- and two-goal victories that have filled the start of their Bundesliga campaign were filled with promise, but until a day like today, it was unclear when that promise would come good. Now the question is whether Bayern can build on this breakout Saturday at Schalke, or will a team more familiar with their personnel be better equipped to slow them down?

Having scored twice from set pieces on Tuesday, there is reason to think Bayern’s still not fully clicking. But that gets back to the influence of Alaba’s goal – an early tally that allowed FCB to exercise patience. If they score early at the Veltins-Arena, we’ll likely see another game like today’s. If not, FCB may still be able to use the momentum of their season’s best performance to start meeting some of last year’s standards.

Three takeaways from the Red Bulls CCL draw against the Whitecaps

New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, left, trips over Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston inside the Whitecaps box during the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal soccer match, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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With 90 more minutes to play up in Vancouver, this tie is far from over. However, Wednesday night’s clash at Red Bull Arena surely presented intriguing storylines ahead of leg two.

The Vancouver Whitecaps picked up a critical away goal in their 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal meeting.

While their CCL clash was the first competitive action for either side since 2016, both clubs showed glimpses of brilliance in the first of their two encounters in the competition.

Here’s a look back at three important takeaways from the Red Bulls’ draw against the Whitecaps.

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Red Bulls still working out kinks up front

Bradley Wright-Phillips has been one of Major League Soccer’s most prolific goalscorers since joining the Red Bulls, but even the star striker struggled to find the ball in dangerous positions on Wednesday. The Red Bulls striker netted the game’s equalizer after 62 minutes, but chances were far and few between on the night for Wright-Phillips.

Despite dominating the possession for long spells of the match (as is the case much of the time), the Red Bulls found difficulty breaking down the Whitecaps when it mattered most.

Jesse Marsch’s side managed just two shots on target throughout the 90 minutes, while Sacha Kljestan’s penalty kick miss voided the host side from leveling up the first leg just after the halftime break.

The Red Bulls have wanted to toy with a two-striker set since early 2016, and Marsch finally got his wish with Argentine DP Gonzalo Veron match fit for the start of the campaign. Veron looked solid at times with his quality first touches and quick pace, but it was the final ball that was often lacking.

Sacha Kljestan and Daniel Royer interlinked well with one another behind the two strikers, and with Mike Grella and Alex Muyl also tabbed as rotational players in the midfield, Marsch will have a solid group to pick from to help his attack develop moving forward.

Manneh is coming into his own

He scored, facilitated and just looked all around dangerous against the Red Bulls. Kekuta Manneh has become one of the most intriguing MLS players over the past 12 months in large part because of his success in the league as well as the opportunity to represent the U.S. Men’s National Team.

While his goal wasn’t the prettiest six minutes before halftime, the Whitecaps attacker was in the right spot, just as he was for much of the night. His three shots on target led all players involved, but it was Manneh’s confidence under pressure that was most impressive.

The Whitecaps didn’t throw too many numbers forward on the night — with the second leg being north of the border — but Manneh and the Whitecaps attack thrived on the counterattack on several occasions.

With a number of players unavailable for Carl Robinson’s side, including Yordy Reyna, Christian Bolanos and Fredy Montero, the visitors played a strong opening leg, particularly after playing the final 20 minutes down a man when Cristian Techera was dismissed for a high tackle on Red Bulls defender Sal Zizzo.

Youngsters show out for both sides

Experience is still the name of the game for both the Red Bulls and Whitecaps, but Wednesday night also provided a glimpse into the future with several stellar performances from the youngsters on the pitch.

Sean Davis was tasked with filling the hole in the central midfield after Dax McCarty was treaded away from the Red Bulls this offseason, and although the youngster has had experience in the past, he certainly didn’t disappoint for Marsch’s group. The 24-year-old looked confident in his distribution and defended well when called upon alongside Felipe.

Meanwhile, Whitecaps attacker Alphonso Davies continues to turn heads for a player that is only 16 years old. Davies only appeared in eight MLS matches last season for the Western Conference side, but looked like a seasoned veteran against the Red Bulls at times with his blazing strides and pinpoint passes.

The young attacker surely has room to grow, particularly in front of net, but hey, he’s 16.

New York Red Bulls 1-1 Vancouver Whitecaps: BWP saves a draw

New York Red Bulls' Aaron Long, top, climbs over Vancouver Whitecaps forward Erik Hurtado while competing for the ball during the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal soccer match, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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  • ‘Caps nap road goal
  • Techera sent off in 71′
  • Return leg March 2

Kekuta Manneh and Bradley Wright-Phillips traded goals as the Vancouver Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls drew 1-1 in their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena.

Cristian Techera sent the ‘Caps down to 10 men in the 71st minute when he connected with a kick between Sal Zizzo’s legs.

A deft touch by Wright-Phillips set up Sacha Kljestan for a fifth minute chance, but two sliding Whitecaps helped pressure the captain’s shot wide of the near post.

Vancouver had a chance two minutes later when Alphonso Davies played Russell Teibert down the right wing, and the Whitecaps wide man curled a shot wide of the far post.

[ MORE: Amazing beach soccer bicycle kick goal ]

The Whitecaps beat Luis Robles before halftime. Kendall Waston flicked a ball toward the net, and Kekuta used his head to turn the ball off Justin Bilyeu and behind Robles. 1-0, 39′.

A foul outside the 18 nearly saw Kljestan level it up with a 45th minute free kick.

Kljestan should’ve tied it up with a PK just after the break. He didn’t, barely chipping his Panenka attempt above shin level. Woof.

Wright-Phillips made it 1-1 in the 62nd minute, when Zizzo’s cross dropped at his feet. A quick reaction had the ball in the back of the net.

Sacha Kljestan stars in “When Panenkas Fail” (video)

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls heads the ball in front of Steve Birnbaum #15 of D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
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When Panenkas don’t go well, players look foolish.

Sacha Kljestan looks foolish.

The New York Red Bulls captain strode to the penalty spot to level the score in Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg against the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps.

[ MORE: Leicester grabs away goal ]

Only he didn’t. Kljestan chipped his attempt barely a foot off the ground, allowing David Ousted to kick the chance away. Bradley Wright-Phillips blazed the rebound over the frame, and it remained 1-0 for the ‘Caps.

WATCH: Liverpool loanee nets hat trick for U.S. U-20 side

STEVENAGE, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19:  Brooks Lennon of Liverpool celebrates his goal during the Premier League 2 match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at The Lamex Stadium on September 19, 2016 in Stevenage, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
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If Brooks Lennon brings this sort of scoring prowess to Real Salt Lake, he may just walk away Rookie of the Year.

On loan from Liverpool, Lennon is first on duty with the United States U-20 men’s national team in Costa Rica.

The U.S. opened U-20 World Cup qualifying with a 1-0 loss to Panama, and was under the gun when it allowed an early goal to Haiti late Tuesday evening.

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But Lennon scored a trio of goals and sent in the corner that Luca de la Torre eventually finished as the Yanks won 4-1. The U.S. has St. Kitts and Nevis in the final group match on Friday.

The top two teams from each group of four advance to the next round, in which four teams will qualify for the U-20 World Cup. That tournament is set for May in South Korea.