This game was supposed to be about gaining experience. A team of young, untested Red Bulls players against Chelsea, last season’s English Premier League champion. But this is soccer, and mismatches on paper sometimes turn into miracle results, especially when the kids aren’t afraid to play their game.
Unfazed by the resumes of their opponents, a team comprised mainly of the Red Bulls’ USL team fell behind by a goal then stormed back to stun the 2012 Champions League winner, 4-2, in a Guinness International Champions Cup match before a boisterous crowd of 24,076 Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena.
Midfielder Sean Davis, whose performance was worthy of Man of the Match honors before he scored both his goals, led the charge against a group of World Cup veterans who, although they are in the early stages of preseason, were outplayed in long stretches of the match.
“We’ve talked a lot about what the future of this club will be and that it will involve the investment in the youth, the investment in the academy,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “… Tonight you got a chance to showcase a lot of the hard work that’s been put in (to the academy) and the kids go out and they play fearless and they go after the game, and as the game goes on they gain confidence and wind up getting an incredible result against an incredible team. Obviously a big day for our club.”
Perhaps the biggest sense of pride for management is that all four goals – two by Davis and one each by Franklin Castellanos and Tyler Adams – came from Red Bull Academy players and validates the time, effort and monetary commitment poured into the team’s youth system.
“I played with a lot of those guys already this year with the USL team,” said Davis, who has begun to get meaningful minutes with the first team. “They’re a great group of guys and I was really looking forward to it. I know that maybe it wasn’t the top team because we had a lot of them play in the Open Cup (Tuesday night), but we still believed in each other and the group. Jesse believed in us and I was really looking forward to getting on the field and working hard with those guys and trying our best against a really good team.”
Asked what players on the Red Bulls he was impressed with, Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho paused for a moment.
“I didn’t look at them,” he said. “I just saw the ball in my net four times.”
The game started well for Mourinho. Though the Red Bulls had their opportunities in the first half, including an open shot in the box by Marius Obekop off a turnover caused by Daniel Bedoya that was saved by Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea led, 1-0, thanks to a nice combination counterattack by Oscar and Loic Remy, with Remy converting in the box in the 26th minute.
The Red Bulls brought on three new players to start the second half – Chelsea made eight changes at the break – and one of them was Castellanos, and he provided the spark for the comeback.
In the 49th minute, Castellanos had a shot cleared off the line after putting pressure on Courtois. Two minutes later, Chelsea defender John Terry sent a lazy back pass to Courtois, who was again pressured by Castellanos in the right side of the box. The ball popped free and the Red Bulls midfielder slotted the equalizer inside the near post.
In the 69th minute, Obekop sent the ball on the right to Castellanos, who sent a cross to the middle of the box. Adams was surprisingly unmarked, and the 16-year-old defender angled a header inside the far post for a 2-1 lead.
Suddenly, the crowd – the majority of which was dressed in Chelsea blue – began to cheer for the Red Bulls.
“Once we went up, all the Chelsea fans changed their jerseys to those Red Bull jerseys,” Adams said with a laugh. “Obviously, it wasn’t all the main first-team guys as usual. They had confidence to put us in the game and we did our job.
“We all played as hard as we possible could. We made it tough for them at times as well. As long as you’re making it tough on guys like that it’s hard to score, and that’s what we did. From the beginning we thought that. Jesse told us at the beginning of the game that it will open up, you’ll have times to play, you’ll have opportunities. We took our opportunities that came and we all have a system and a philosophy that he put into our heads, a high-press, high-attacking energy mindset, and we all stuck to the game plan and it ended up working out, so tons of respect to him.”
But it didn’t end there.
Davis made it 3-1 in the 73rd minute and, after Chelsea cut the deficit to 3-2 two minutes later when Eden Hazard drove home Oscar’s corner kick from the top of the box, Davis connected again in the 77th minute on a shot that deflected in off the hands of a diving Courtois.
The final goal, set up when Red Bulls midfielder Colin Heffron, sped around Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta and centered the ball that deflected to Davis, prompted Mourinho to quip, “We have the best left back in England in Azpilicueta. Today the blond kid (Heffron) killed him, but he’s the best.”
“You know, I never really thought that we had them,” Davis said. “They are such a great team. They could come back at any moment. They have so many great players that a lot of us look up to. So the game could change quickly. I think after the fourth one we were feeling pretty good. We knew that they were a great team and they could turn it on at any moment.”
Marsch seemed to take more pride in the fact that the team wasn’t afraid to play their game. That has been the club’s philosophy from the day he and sporting director Ali Curtis were hired. All the teams, top to bottom, would play a similar game.
“I think that looked like a Red Bull team (tonight),” Marsch said. “I think it's important to acknowledge the job that (Red Bulls 2 coach) John Wolyniec has done with the USL team, Vadim (Kirillov) and Ibrahim (Sekagya), those guys have spent a lot of time with us and our team and our training, and we've tried to implement the type of play and style we want at all levels. ... The best part is I still think even with a bunch of different players on the field and some young kids on the field, it looked like us.”
For Mourinho, the loss was not the end of the world. Perhaps he even felt the team needed a little shakeup after winning the EPL title last season.
“The kids they picked tonight were very good opponents for us – sharp, quick, fast, high motivation. I believe (they were) so happy to play against Chelsea,” he said. “They gave us a good match. … They gave us a good training session. If we come here today and win 10-nil, I’m not happy with that because it means that no opposition and no intensity, too easy, it’s not good for us. We need the game they gave us.”
So, in a sense, both teams got what they came for. Both teams needed a good test, and that’s what they got. It will be easy for the Chelsea players to forget what happened Wednesday night, but it will be a night the Red Bulls players will never forget.