Atlanta United may have left Red Bull Arena on Sunday holding a slim one-point lead atop the Eastern Conference and in the Supporters’ Shield race, but they are no longer the team to beat in the MLS Cup title race.
The New York Red Bulls staked an irrefutable claim to that label after a convincing 2-0 win over Atlanta United that was made more impressive by the fact Bradley Wright-Phillips (suspended) and Tyler Adams (injured) — their two best players — spent the match in street clothes.
Wright-Phillips’ absence was no surprise, with Red Bulls fans spending a week lamenting the weak yellow card that kept him out of Sunday’s marquee match-up, but when Adams was scratched from the lineup with a minor back issue, there was a palpable sense of concern before kickoff that Red Bulls fans were about to witness a beatdown.
They did end up seeing one team dominate, but it was the Red Bulls who outplayed Atlanta United for much of the 90 minutes on Sunday. Chris Armas’ side used their relentless high-press and league-best defense to neutralize and frustrate Atlanta United’s high-flying attack, while creating chances of their own with some effective combination play and efficient counterattacks.
“It was down to intensity, desire – we never got started,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We never got into the game until the game was past us and we were chasing the game. High pressure or not, we knew what they were going to come with, we knew what to expect – we just never got into the game.”
Atlanta United isn’t the first top team to struggle at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls have posted multi-goal victories against New York City FC (4-0), Portland (4-0) and FC Dallas (3-0) at home this season, and Sunday’s result was their fifth straight shutout win at Red Bull Arena.
Not only have the Red Bulls been among the league’s best home teams, they have also excelled against the league’s best teams. They now boast a 7-2-2 record against teams currently sitting in the top four spots in the standings for both conferences, having outscored their opponents 25-10. By comparison, Atlanta United is just 3-4-3 against those same opponents, outscoring their opposition 17-15.
It is that disparity against the league’s best that has the Red Bulls looking much more like MLS Cup favorites heading into the playoffs than Atlanta United. Sunday’s performance only cemented that status.
The Red Bulls have found a way this year to consistently step up against their toughest opponents, and the build-up to Sunday’s clash with Atlanta United helped kick things up another notch for Armas’ squad.
“Training this week was so intense, really demanding,” Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis told GBP Sports . “We were doing intra-squad scrimmages and we were hating each other after. It was just so intense and I think that’s exactly what we needed for a game like this. I just think the team came out and we imposed ourselves from the first whistle.”
The Red Bulls succeeded in neutralizing Atlanta playmaker and MVP candidate Miguel Almiron, who managed just 13 completed passes and one successful dribble. Those stats didn’t tell the full story of the handful of dangerous runs he made in the first half, but the reality is Almiron found little room to operate, and few clear passing lines.
The Red Bulls midfield swarmed the Paraguayan star, led by Davis and Marc Rzatkowski, who stepped up to make up for the absence of Adams.
“They were incredible,” Armas said of Davis and Rzatkowski. “So disruptive. I mean Sean Davis, a will to win today. He’s maybe out-matched sometimes in speed and he still wins the race. That is will, that is focus, that is seeing it earlier than the next guy and wanting it more. It’s a big tactical challenge on the day for those guys, but they certainly carried their weight and then some.”
The Red Bulls vaunted defense did the rest. Aaron Long snuffed out the few looks Josef Martinez was able to get, while Kemar Lawrence was a one-man wall, helping contain the tandem of Hector Villalba and Julian Gressel on his side of the field. Tim Parker and Michael Murillo did their parts as well, with Parker even getting forward to contribute with a goal.
It was a complete team performance for the Red Bulls, a comprehensive victory over the team with the league’s best record, and it came with their two best players not even on the field. That is the kind of result that can propel the Red Bulls to a run at their first MLS Cup.
It is also a result that has given Atlanta United’s players an eye-opening message that the road to a league title will have to go through Red Bull Arena, and getting past the Red Bulls will require their very best or else they will be the ones being dominated much the same way they have dominated so many opponents this year.
“Today we played against the most intense team in the league,” Atlanta United coach Tata Martino said. “And we knew that if we didn’t match that they were going to control the game.”