The first test has been passed; Atlanta United has advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after a strong two-leg win over NYCFC. But an even bigger challenge awaits in the New York Red Bulls, the only team standing between Atlanta United and a berth in the MLS Cup Final. The Five Stripes have never beaten the Red Bulls, but are in great form –– and with a packed house at Mercedes-Benz Stadium behind them, they’ll will be ready to put it all on the line against their Eastern Conference foes.
Every kick could have a say on ATL UTD’s postseason fate, so this will be one you won’t want to miss. Click here to secure your ticket to the match. If you can’t make it, tune in to ESPN at 5:00 p.m. EST Sunday to catch every minute from Atlanta, or click here for all the other ways to tune in for the match.
#2 Atlanta United
Through their first two seasons in Major League soccer, Atlanta United has broken records, won plenty of games and scored plenty of goals in the process. But there’s been one nut that’s been too tough to crack thus far: the New York Red Bulls, one of the few remaining MLS teams the Five Stripes have yet to beat in their short history. They’ll have to overcome that – their biggest obstacle yet – in order to earn a spot in the MLS Cup Final.
One major plus for the Five Stripes is Josef Martinez returning to the scoresheet last time out. After his historic season, Josef put two in the back of the net at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to bury NYCFC and bring his year-long tally to 33 goals. That’s thanks in no small part to the return of Miguel Almirón, who was at his sensational best in both of the first two legs of the Semifinals. But with Tito Villalba also returning to full fitness –– and Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel and Eric Remedi holding it down behind him –– this is a team with plenty of ways to hurt a defense.
Lining up behind them will be a defense with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. The Five Stripes back line has given up three goals in each of their two previous meetings with the Red Bulls, but have shown a new level of grit and toughness in the first two matches of the postseason so far. NYCFC brought a chippy, in-your-face style to Atlanta United that is similar to what Red Bulls has shown in the past, and the red, black and gold stood up to them at every turn. They’ll need every bit of that toughness to stand strong against one of the most physical teams in the league.
#1 New York Red Bulls
It’s fair to say the New York Red Bulls have had Atlanta United’s number in their short history so far, and they won’t be short on motivation with the chance to win their first ever MLS Cup on the line.
For the Red Bulls, it all starts from the back, where MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long, center back Tim Parker and goalkeeper Luis Robles form what was statistically the best defense in Major League Soccer this season. With MLS Best XI fullback Kemar Lawrence and MLS All-Star Michael Murillo combining defense and attack on either flank, it’s a fierce back line that’s only enhanced by two tenacious central midfielders in Tyler Adams and Sean Davis. The key to any match against the Red Bulls is to find a way through their infamous defensive press. It’s a tall task, but Atlanta United’s attack has been the best in MLS the past two seasons and are confident against anyone.
However, the Red Bulls aren’t just defense –– they have plenty of firepower up front as well. Bradley Wright-Phillips is one of the best strikers in MLS history, and he has proven he has plenty left in the tank again this year, near the top of the league with 20 goals and surpassing his career century mark. He’ll be trying to combine constantly with Alejandro Romero – or Kaku –– the Paraguayan international pulling the strings from the #10 position. And keep an eye out for the wingers, Alex Muyl and Daniel Royer, who have caused the Five Stripes trouble in the past. It’s a strong team, one good enough to finish above Atlanta United and set the single-season points record this year. But it’s an opponent the Five Stripes know well, and you can be sure there will be an extra push from head coach Tata Martino to get the team over the hump in a massive postseason matchup.
The Five Stripes will be hoping a packed house of Atlanta faithful can help push them one step further to the first MLS Cup Final appearance in team history. Tickets are still available here, or click here for all the ways to tune in from home.