Atlanta United soundly defeated New York Red Bulls 3-0 on Sunday evening at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Experience the shock from a fan’s perspective.
First, a disclaimer: I am fully aware, especially as a life-long Atlanta fan, that the Eastern Conference final is only halfway done and is incomplete. However, after failing to defeat the New York Red Bulls in four previous attempts, I think it is only right to explain the feeling of finally overcoming such a good team.
The more I read about the win on Sunday night, the more I refuse to believe it actually happened. Atlanta have never beaten Red Bulls. They have only drawn one of those matches and lost the other four.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending about a dozen Atlanta United matches through these first two seasons. That includes both matches against New York; the first at Bobby Dodd Stadium in March 2017 and the second at Mercedes Benz Stadium in May of this year.
The first one was great because it was Atlanta’s first ever match. The atmosphere was fantastic and I got to witness the club’s first goal. Of course, they went full Atlanta on us. After leading 1-0 for 75 minutes, they gave up two quick goals and eventually lost 2-1. This year, the game was completely different but Red Bulls made a fool of us anyway.
I had low (but realistic) expectations for Sunday’s match. It’s safe to say those expectations were shattered in favor of some great results.
Before the match
This post pretty much sums up my main feelings before the match. It’s great to get a chance to play the best MLS regular season team in history. It’s not great when that team has constantly pummeled you through two seasons in the league.
I attended the match with a group of friends. The group was very excited; they got their first taste of Atlanta United soccer from the previous playoff match against NYCFC, a 3-1 romp to win the series. I was easily the least excited about this game. That’s not to say I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the game or being in that atmosphere. I just knew it would be a tough match against a historically better team.
On the way to our seats, I saw the starting XI and wasn’t too thrilled about a 4-3-3, which is the same formation we started in against Red Bulls back in September when we lost 2-0. Then I got word that New York’s Kemar Lawrence would be missing the game with a knee injury. Normally, I would be excited, except in that same September match New York played without two of their best players, Tyler Adams and Bradley Wright-Phillips (and they handled us anyway).
Nerves were at an all-time high once we made it to our seats and waited for the teams to take the field. The stadium-wide tifo sure helped things, but boy was I nervous anyway.
During the match
My nerves turned to confusion once I noticed the shape both teams were taking up. It was confusing to me that Red Bulls refused to press, which was the tactic they took up in their best wins over us. It was even more confusing that Jeff Larentowicz was playing as a part of a back-three. Fortunately, Atlanta scored first thanks to Josef Martinez and suddenly, none of this mattered. But I had seen that movie before.
Even with a 1-0 lead, I was extremely uneasy. In both Red Bulls games I attended, Atlanta scored first, only to find a way to lose anyway. Then the players from both teams started getting chippy with each other. That made me worry even more, because it reminded me of the May match when Atlanta’s players became frustrated and shut down.
After halftime, the worst possible event occurred: New York scored. It was Wright-Phillips, of course, and it emerged from a set-piece play. I was not surprised but my heart did sink to my stomach. All of a sudden the score was 1-1 and the Red Bulls had a precious away goal (side note: I hate when the opposing team scores. The stadium goes quiet and the feeling of “what just happened?” always occurs). The game was starting to feel like that May match all over again and I could picture the result slipping away.
Then the unimaginable happened as VAR took the Red Bulls’ goal back. This was the turning point of the night. It was also the moment I began to calm down and realize we could actually beat Red Bulls. It felt like the soccer gods looked down on Atlanta. VAR took away an Atlanta goal in the May match from the same end of the stadium no less.
Then Franco Escobar scored in the 71st minute and I actually could not feel my face. I was utterly shocked; it was the first time Atlanta had ever scored multiple goals against the Red Bulls. Believe me, I was still nervous and waiting for the Red Bulls to find an away goal. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Once Hector Villalba scored a third goal, I was in disbelief. Atlanta United beating the New York Red Bulls 3-0? It was the last result I expected.
After the match
All I wanted to do was get home and watch the highlights. I wanted to see how we dismantled the best regular season MLS team in history. I still couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched video after video. It was late and I needed sleep but once I got home I didn’t care.
From the tifo to the goals to the pleasant feeling of disbelief, I just wanted to keep reliving the moments of the match.
After the initial happiness wore off and as I read more about the tactics and how the game actually transpired, I fell into a further state of shock. New York is one of the best teams in the league. After such a disappointing and frankly awful loss in May, I thought Atlanta would never figure out how to defeat them. The September loss only furthered that line of thinking.
Whether it was a result of a massive change in tactics by New York, or the atmosphere in the stadium, or just the gusto by Atlanta to really take it to Red Bulls, the win transpired nonetheless. I still cannot believe it, even after three days.
Too bad we’ve got to play them again on Thursday night, in what will either be one of the best nights in Atlanta United’s — and Atlanta’s — history or one of the worst. Either way, Sunday’s win was unprecedented and the shock is only just beginning to fade away.