The matchup between Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls on Wednesday carried weight. The two teams entered a point apart in the standings and both had an opportunity to clinch a postseason berth with a win.
Atlanta got out of a hostile environment with a 0-0 draw, extending its unbeaten streak to five matches. The club gained a point and moved up the Eastern Conference standings into fifth place.
However, along with Montreal’s 2-0 win over Houston, Atlanta did not qualify for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. The team’s postseason fate will come down to what happens on Decision Day on Nov. 7.
“I’d say I’m half-satisfied,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “I felt that it wasn’t the way we wanted to play. We wanted actually to have a little more possession, that was part of the game plan to have more control as always… We had a difficult game in front of us with a team that presses at a very, very high intensity, but the kids did well. I was pleased with the determination and the character of the team.”
Wednesday’s match between the heated rivals favored the home team. New York’s high pressure kept the ball on their half of the field for most of the night. The 5-Stripes rarely saw their own attacking third. They finished the match with two shots and connected just 62 percent of its passes.
But the game plan was to get points, and the team achieved that.
“The task at hand today was to get a result,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “And to get a result was going to take a different type of game, knowing what we were going up against.”
The Red Bulls entered the match as a hot team having won five of its last six matches. Tonight, they were effective in their notorious pressure. The stifling style limited Atlanta’s possession to 43 percent. Atlanta closed out the first half without taking a single shot.
Striker Josef Martínez started on the bench due to Pineda’s efforts to manage the striker’s load. Without Martínez for more than two-thirds of the match, the team relied on Luiz Araújo, Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno to create attacking chances.
The group didn’t generate many scoring moments. Araújo, who came into the match on a five-game scoring streak, struggled to find a rhythm. He lost the ball to halt a developing play that was one of Atlanta’s best opportunities of the first half and stumbled again in the 32nd minute on a breakaway, missing Moreno who was open on an overlapping run.
The striker received a yellow card in the 11th minute for a clear shove. He came off the pitch in the 67th minute for midfielder Ronald Hernández.
“At the end of the day, sometimes it’s not pretty,” Pineda said. “But we somehow got a good result.”
As the match went on, New York’s chances grew closer each time, starting with their first shot on goal in the third minute. In the 14th, Red Bulls striker Fábio made a back-heel pass to midfielder Caden Clark. Atlanta defender George Bello’s precise tackle and pass back to Guzan prevented a good opportunity for New York.
A minute later, the Red Bulls got closer. Striker Patryk Klimala nearly converted a header on a diagonal run inside the box.
Then in the 48th minute, the Red Bulls missed a chance by inches when Klimala’s close-range shot banged off the crossbar. Then, Klimala had New York’s clearest chance of the night on a 1-v-1 with Guzan in the 52nd. Guzan came up with a crucial save.
“Obviously Red Bulls is never an easy game,” Bello said. “The way they play, they press a lot. They don’t give you the time on the ball. And it’s always going to be a dogfight, and you’ve got to adapt to that.”
New York came out of the gate pressing high, dominating possession and forcing Atlanta to miss several clearances in the opening 10 minutes.
The Red Bulls finished with 12 corners on the night, compared to just one for Atlanta, and took 15 shots.
“Sometimes you have to adapt to the opponent,” Bello said. “I felt like we handled it well, and we’re one step closer to playoffs.”
Atlanta’s first corner kick came in the 86th minute after a promising moment when attackers flooded the box. New York cleared the ball, however. Minutes later, Atlanta nearly put the game away in stoppage time with a golden opportunity for Bello, but his shot went straight to goalkeeper Carlos Coronel.
Martínez came onto the pitch in the 67th minute for Moreno. His first touch of the match came on a header in front of goal off a direct free kick.
Given the lopsided possession, Atlanta's back line held strong and limited New York’s shots on goal to three. Led by its core of Alan Franco, Anton Walkes and Defender of the Year candidate Miles Robinson, Atlanta’s defense kept New York off the score sheet and made 41 clearances, a single-match high for the 2021 regular season.
A big stop came in the 69th minute when Ibarra lost the ball right at the top its box. The group blocked and cleared the ball before the Red Bulls could get off a shot.
Guzan finished the night with three saves. It was his 10th clean sheet of the season.
“It’s a huge point on the road,” Guzan said.
The teams played to a 0-0 in their previous meeting in June. Atlanta now owns an all-time record of 1-7-4 against New York Red Bulls and remains winless at Red Bull Arena.
Atlanta United’s last match of the regular season is on Sunday, Nov. 7 against FC Cincinnati. Atlanta can clinch a playoff spot if it wins, draws or loses by less than eight goals