Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final first leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a result no Atlanta United fan will forget. But as the players reiterated time after time to reporters after the match, the team is only halfway there –– 90 minutes at Red Bull Arena still stand in the way of their spot in MLS Cup. The goal differential may be in the Five Stripes’ favor, but there’s plenty of soccer left to play, and it will take everything Atlanta United has to take a historic step to an MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Atlanta United’s postseason lives are on the line, so this is one no Five Stripes fan can miss. If you can’t make it to New York, tune in to FS1 at 7:30 p.m. EST Thursday to catch every minute, or click here for all the other ways to tune in for the match.
#2 Atlanta United
Atlanta United may be the second seed, but they hold the upper hand in this matchup heading into leg two. Thanks to a near-perfect performance in Atlanta, the Five Stripes take a three-goal advantage to New York, meaning any result better than a three-goal loss clinches their spot in MLS Cup.
Josef Martinez left his signature mark on the first leg, opening the scoring to become the first person in MLS history to ever score 34 goals in a calendar year, including the postseason. But this was a team performance from front to back. Franco Escobar capped off a man-of-the-match performance with a goal and an assist, and Tito Villalba showed the danger of Atlanta United’s depth, coming off the bench to score an unstoppable third. But plenty of players made contributions beyond the scoreline. Darlington Nagbe was seamless in the middle connecting defense to attack, Julian Gressel’s workrate, tireless runs and inch-perfect passing were vital, while Eric Remedi provided crucial defensive balance and dogged defending in the center of the park. And of course, Miguel Almirón was all over the field, playing at a level rarely seen in the history of this league.
While Atlanta United’s attackers shined as they always do, the Five Stripes back line was flawless to keep a clean sheet –– keeping the Red Bulls from scoring what would have been an important away goal. That started with Escobar who was relentless on the right flank, leading the team in touches, duels and clearances. But Leandro González Pirez racked up a team-high in tackles, Michael Parkhurst’s reading of the play was a step ahead all match, Jeff Larentowicz added strength and tactical discipline and Greg Garza was immense to lock down the left side while also contributing to the attack. And organizing it all was Brad Guzan, who has only conceded one goal through three matches in the postseason thus far.
This two-legged tie is far from over, but Atlanta United are peaking at the right time and have history on their minds.
#1 New York Red Bulls
The New York Red Bulls may come into the match with a three-goal deficit, but they have the tools to turn any tie around. The Five Stripes will have the recent regular season loss at Red Bull Arena fresh in their mind, and will have to keep a level head in a tough road environment to punch their ticket to the final.
Bradley Wright-Phillips may have had a goal disallowed over the weekend, but it demonstrated the threat he always poses in the penalty area as one of the best strikers in the history of MLS. He’ll be looking to combine with Kaku, Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl to cause trouble for the Five Stripes back line. But for the Red Bulls, the best offense is often defense as they look to disrupt Atlanta United’s passing scheme to spring counter attacks. U.S. international Tyler Adams is the one to keep an eye on here, leading the defensive press and trying to force Atlanta United into a costly error.
And don’t be fooled by a leaky performance on Sunday –– The Red Bulls defense was the best in the league this year for a reason. Aaron Long and Tim Parker form one of the best central pairings in MLS, and with Red Bulls coach Chris Armas hinting after the match that MLS Best XI defender Kemar Lawrence could be back in the lineup, fans should expect a much tighter back line in their home stadium.
The Five Stripes come in with a big advantage, but have to prove it on the road at Red Bull Arena. The traveling 17’s will be loud as always, but if you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.