The Eastern Conference Finals are a place Atlanta United have never gone before, and it will be their biggest test yet as they face a familiar foe in the New York Red Bulls. The Five Stripes have never beaten a New York side hungry for their first ever MLS Cup title., but Atlanta United is reaching top form again and will have an extra chip on their shoulder as they enter a match in unfamiliar territory: as underdogs.
Ahead of the match, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot:
Eyes on 99
There are plenty of players on the Red Bulls roster that are capable of changing a game. Kaku can split a defense with one pass, Tyler Adams is an unstoppable engine in the middle, and the defense is as good as any in the league. But still, after all these years, the main threat in front of goal is #99. Bradley Wright-Phillips had 20 goals and 8 assists this year in just 32 games played, and was out of the lineup the last time these two teams met. He’s a predator in the box who just needs a yard of space to change a game. The Five Stripes defense will have to key in on him, especially inside their own box, to take their primary gamechanger out of the match.
Watch out for the Wings
Between Wright-Phillips the scorer, Kaku the provider, and a stellar back line, there’s not much that hasn’t already been said about the Red Bulls this year. But one area in which they’ve truly excelled this season is out on the flanks. On the right is an MLS All-Star in full back Michael Murillo, and he lines up opposite a newly-named MLS Best XI defender in Kemar Lawrence on the left. Both have the speed and technical ability to get up and down the wing and contribute to the offense, and then combine that with elite one-on-one defending in the back. Atlanta United will have to pounce quickly when the two fullbacks get high up the field to take advantage of the space their attack-minded nature can leave open at the back.
Up for the Fight
The players said it themselves after their last matchup against the Red Bulls: they came out flat-footed, got hit in the mouth –– metaphorically –– and took too long to respond. The Five Stripes have turned that around in postseason thus far, emphasizing the need to “win the fight,” no matter how the game progresses. This is another step forward in that test against a Red Bulls side that is as physical as anyone in the league. The Five Stripes will need to match that intensity and physicality they showed against NYC, while also maintaining cool heads, in order to take down the Red Bulls. In the postseason, there’s a little extra on every pass, every tackle, and every 50/50 ball. They need to come out in attack mode to match the Red Bulls’ pressure.
Follow the Match:
Kickoff is set for 5:00 p.m. EST on Sunday, with the match set to be broadcast on ESPN. Click here for a full rundown of how to, watch, listen, or follow along with the game.