Regular season MLS conference champions LAFC and NYCFC, as well as Costa Rican side AD San Carlos made their first appearances. LAFC travelled to Mexico to take on Club León, while NYCFC ventured to Costa Rica for a match with newcomers San Carlos.
Coaching his first competitive match with NYCFC was Ronny Deila. The Norwegian joined the club following the departure of Domè Torrent, and with the club coming off their best ever finish to a season, Deila’s first test comes internationally.
It isn’t the first time Deila’s coaching debut came in an international competition. The former Celtic FC manager started his tenure in Glasgow with a UEFA Champions League qualification match before making his first appearance in the Scottish Premier League.
“We have to play a very important game very quickly without any games in the league,” Deila remarked. “It’s a bit of an advantage for San Carlos, but at the same time I’m very confident in the players I have.”
For one NYCFC player, the match was a homecoming. Ronald Matarrita, who joined the club from Liga Deportiva Alajuelense in 2016, was returning to his home country. With the match relocated from San Carlos to Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Alajuela, Matarrita stepped onto his old home field.
“It’s a super cool feeling, being with your family and seeing all your friends who have seen you play with the national team,” Matarrita said. “I felt comfortable and at home. It was really important for me to get this full 90 minutes playing in front of them.”
Matarrita spent his first three years of senior play with Alajuelense before making his move to MLS. Matarrita and LD Alajuelense enjoyed success in the Costa Rican league, making multiple appearances in the Champions League.
In 2015, Alajuelense made a run to the semifinals of the competition, defeating DC United before falling to the Montreal Impact. Since then, Matarrita has featured consistently for NYCFC, making up part of one of the league’s toughest defenses.
Matarrita was involved early in the match. NYCFC’s 2019 leading goal scorer, Heber Araujo dos Santos, snuck behind the San Carlos defensive line in the 13th minute. A well-timed ball by Matarrita fell in front of the Brazillian, whose outstretched foot was enough to send it into the net, opening the scoring.
The second goal came quickly after in a similar fashion. This time, a ball from Anton Tinnerholm was redirected by Heber, giving City a 2-0 lead just 35 minutes in.
Right at the stroke of halftime, San Carlos pulled a goal back, as Jorman Aguilar rifled a shot past Sean Johnson. The Costa Rican crowd, silenced by the early 2-0 deficit roared in celebration with newfound confidence as “Los Toros del Norte” entered halftime just one goal down.
It wouldn’t last long however, as a handball just five minutes into the second half granted NYCFC a penalty kick. Heber stepped up and placed the ball comfortably in the back of the net, earning him a hat trick and extending the lead back to a two-goal cushion.
Heber’s hat trick became the first for a MLS club in the competition and a boost of confidence for NYC fans as their leading scorer opened 2020 on the right foot.
In the final third of the match, it was clear that NYCFC was beginning to lose their fitness. After a fourth goal, a free kick flicked in by Alexander Callens, San Carlos was able to bring two goals back, turning what was a rout into a close contest. What was an almost silent stadium burst back into celebration with San Carlos trailing again by just one.
“After going up 4-1, we lost that concentration and discipline. When you do that, any team gets good,” Deila remarked postgame. “We haven’t played many games with a full 90 minutes, so we have to work on keeping discipline and keeping shape for the full 90.”
This ailment wasn’t unique to NYCFC. Coming from preseason, all MLS clubs saw a visible lack of match fitness. In five matches, MLS clubs outscored opponents 9-3 before the 62nd minute. In the last 28 minutes of play, the traffic was almost exclusively the other way, with MLS clubs conceding seven goals and netting just one.
That lone goal came after 90 minutes, a penalty awarded to NYCFC in stoppage time. Maxi Moralez stepped up but had his shot saved, only for the rebound to fall perfectly for Alexandru Mitriță, who restored City’s two-goal lead and sent NYCFC home with a 5-3 win.
“It’s the first game in a really tough environment. It’s great to have that win heading home, having that in our back pockets,” said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. “The lead is a safety net, but we have to be aware of the task at hand. They’re going to come down knowing they have to win. It’s important to manage the result, knowing it’s a two-legged scenario.”
NYCFC was the only MLS club to exit the first leg with a win, heading into a home match on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena. Atlanta, Seattle, and Montreal all return to the US and Canada with draws, with only LAFC falling in a 2-0 loss to León.