For large chunks of Thursday night’s season opener, New York City FC looked just as strong as the team that smashed the club points record a season ago.
But for a few key moments during NYCFC’s debut in the CONCACAF Champions League, it was clear the team hadn’t played a competitive match yet this season.
NYCFC held on to beat AD San Carlos, 5-3, in the first leg of their Round of 16 matchup at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Alajuela, Costa Rica, winning on the road to open the club’s sixth season of play and its first appearance in the continental competition.
Brazilian striker Héber led the way for City, recording the first hat trick of his NYCFC career. But as the clock continued to run, NYCFC’s energy levels dropped, and a few defensive mistakes kept the team from putting away their Costa Rican opposition until very late.
NYCFC will host San Carlos in the second leg on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, with the aggregate score determining which team advances to the quarterfinals. NYCFC picked up five away goals, which will serve as a potential tiebreaker.
An early goal by Héber, the club’s leading scorer last season, got NYCFC moving in the right direction. Playing out of the back, Ronald Matarrita received a pass on the left side and drove up the wing. He then crossed into the box and found the streaking Héber at the left corner of the six-yard box. Héber slid his right foot into the path of the ball and redirected it to the bottom left corner past diving San Carlos keeper Patrick Pemberton to take the lead in the 13th minute.
In the 35th minute, Héber scored his second in similar fashion from the other side of the pitch. After a sustained attack by NYCFC seemed to be over, a San Carlos defender made a poor attempt to clear the ball, allowing Anton Tinnerholm to regain possession on the right flank. With several players lining up to receive a cross, Tinnerholm kept it low and found Héber unmarked. The Brazilian took an awkward touch, but got enough on the ball to hit it against the far post and across the line for a 2-0 lead.
City looked to be cruising as halftime approached, controlling more than two-thirds of the possession through 45 minutes, but San Carlos caught the defense napping to pull one back as the entering stoppage time. San Carlos midfielder Randy Chirino was able to play a ball over Tinnerholm while Jorman Aguilar ran into the space behind. Aguilar took one touch with his left foot before quickly firing a rocket into the bottom of the far post, beating a late-arriving Maxime Chanot and a diving Sean Johnson.
Héber completed his first hat trick on a penalty in the 52nd minute after a handball in the box. With the keeper diving right, Héber slotted the ball left for his third of the night, becoming just the fourth NYCFC player to record a hat trick.
Alex Callens added to the lead less than 10 minutes later, displaying some of the set piece work new coach Ronny Deila said the club worked on throughout the preseason. Alexandru Mitrita delivered the ball from the left side into Callens, who fought off a rugby tackle to finish for City’s fourth away goal of the evening.
As fatigue began to set in, NYCFC looked to sit back a bit and protect a two-goal lead. Instead, the defense was left stunned by a powerful shot from well outside the box by San Carlos’ Omar Browne that curled through the back line and around Johnson.
With the game still up for grabs and stoppage time not far away, Maxi Moralez drew a foul at the edge of the box for City’s second penalty of the game. Pemberton saved Moralez’s attempt from the spot, but Mitrita followed up to seal the game and put NYCFC in excellent position heading home.
Deila made some interesting team selections in his first competitive match in charge of NYCFC. The Norwegian coach’s first starting lineup did not include Moralez, last season’s MLS assist leader who battled an injury early in preseason, while Valentín Castellanos also was on the bench despite becoming a fixture in the team a year ago. Both players entered the game with the score at 4-2 in the 64th minute.
To start the match, Deila opted for a stronger midfield with James Sands playing alongside Keaton Parks and Alex Ring, but the real surprise was the inclusion of Jesús Medina. The designated player was largely out of favor during the tenure of Deila’s predecessor, Domènec Torrent, but Medina mostly held his own against San Carlos. He nearly scored midway through the first half, just missing with a shot from outside the box midway. Meidna also came close to an assist on a cross that found Ring in the box, but the ball sailed over the bar.
Lake Grove native Joe Scally, 17, made his second senior appearance for the club when he entered for Tinnerholm in the 62nd minute.