Not only was Sunday a chance for Atlanta United to make a first impression in their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance, it was a chance to redeem themselves against a Red Bulls side which has been a tough nut to crack since they joined the league. But they did just that and more with a dominant 3-0 performance, and after the match the players all pointed to the same difference maker: intensity.
“We’ve raised the energy, the desire, the fight,” said Captain Michael Parkhurst. “We’re not afraid to go out there and lose the possession battle. We don’t have to connect 30 passes to go to goal. We’re going to take what the game gives us.”
“You know that when you play the Red Bulls, it’s going to be a physical game," he continued. "You have to win your fair share of challenges (and) you have to win your second balls because they’re so, so good when they win the second balls and when they attack very quickly. I thought our midfield did a fantastic job of winning those second balls and playing in behind them.”
There’s no doubt the midfield was tough, relentless and suffocating, but it wasn’t just in the center of the pitch where Atlanta United out-hustled their conference foes.
“We needed to compete just everywhere, and today, we did that,” added goalkeeper Brad Guzan. “We played when we were able to play. We fought we battled and ultimately, we scored three great goals.”
All three of Atlanta’s goals stemmed from classy distribution, but the match was chippy from the start. The team said at the start of the postseason that no matter what happened, they had to win the fight. There were times in Sunday’s matchup when it was purely a physical battle and Atlanta was clearly up for the challenge.
“I think all playoffs that you see all over the world – especially in Mexico and US, the ones that I’ve been involved in – they’re not the prettiest games,” said Greg Garza. “They are not going to be the prettiest games. What matters most is who comes out on top, and I think we did that with the hard work we put in this week.”
“I think the intensity has been there from the first minute until the last," Garza added. "I think it shows from every single one of our players, we come in after 90 minutes, after 98 minutes, and we’re completely dead. That shows a lot of how much work we’ve put in on the field. We’re very satisfied with the work, but it’s not over yet.”
It's true that Atlanta United has put themselves in nearly the perfect position heading into Thursday’s second leg of the Conference Finals up 3-0 on aggregate, but with only one foot in the door to MLS Cup, Atlanta will need to match Sunday’s intensity to seal their fate as Eastern Conference Champions.
“We can’t take our foot off the gas we can’t go up there and just defend for 90 minutes,” said Guzan. “We need to play like this from here on out and that goes for the second leg of this series and if the stars align, if we can make it to the final here, then great. We need to play like this.”
Atlanta will look to finish the Red Bulls on Thursday night as they kick off from Red Bull Arena at 7:30pm. Make sure you’re tuned in on FS1 for the club’s biggest match in the team’s history to this point. You won’t want to miss this one.