The New York Red Bulls might have won the Supporters Shield, but until an MLS Cup trophy sits besides the multiple Shields, the fanbase which gathers in Harrison will continue to see the team’s failures as just ‘so Metro.’
The New York Red Bulls began the season with high hopes. It left this season’s goals easy: MLS Cup or bust. Everything started well enough, New York a consistent feature at the top of the standings and MLS Multiplex Power Rankings.
Then the midseason departure of manager Jesse Marsch had fans paralyzed for a moment, if not panicking over the rest of the season. The Red Bulls had a chance at the double after all. As we all know, that chance has since dissipated. Technically, however, the Red Bulls still do have a chance at the double. Overcoming the three-goal deficit from the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against Atlanta United is not impossible, but it is unlikely.
But judging by reports of Red Bulls ticketing staff calling ticket holders to remind them of the game, it would seem the gloomy mood has taken hold. Facing such a climb back to even in the series, on a Thursday evening, is not a recipe for a great turnout.
But the Red Bull players should not need a full stadium to urge them on. It hasn’t been needed all season. The Red Bulls tout the best home record in the league this season. Their 14 wins should give the fans at least one goal’s worth of hope.
This game’s narrative should be more about pride. Chris Armas showed no respect for his own team’s achievements when he switched tactics so drastically in the first leg. New York pressed its way to a Supporters’ Shield, pipping Atlanta at the very end for the honor. New York thrived by creating tension and gaining possession in the opponent’s half all season.
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There was no sense of urgency in the Atlanta United backline, largely because New York refused to create it with their usual pressing. In turn, as predicted, New York allowed Atlanta to constantly have an attacker stressing the Red Bull defence. Three times, that tension broke instead of bent.
New York pressed Columbus into an offseason, running riot in the first leg away from home. Why did Armas then fold his hand before the cards were even played? Is Tata Martino that well regarded? Is Connor Lade that much of a liability that asking any more of him leads to a worse result? Is Kemar Lawrence just worth that much for the Red Bulls?
New York is forced to press in the second leg. A first-half goal is all but a must. Not conceding is also a paramount concern. Going too extreme will expose New York to the counter-attacks Atlanta will be practicing all week. Too conservative, and the supporters will questions Armas’, nerve if not his preferred style of play.
Armas does deserve credit for guiding the squad this far. While surely starting from scratch in preseason would be preferred, he took on the challenge of not messing things up. In sports, that’s sometimes easier said than done. Armas did more than just not screw it up. It was him that inspired the Supporters’ Shield victory.
For goals, Armas will turn to Bradley Wright-Phillips. He bagged the goals for the Red Bulls all season. If he was streaking down a channel, darting to a post or flashing in front of a defender, the rest of the Red Bulls team took notice and attempted to play a dangerous ball in his path. While not always pretty, a sliding nicked goal counts all the same as a wonder strike.
New York must be patient and allow for Wright-Phillips to stretch the defense and find pockets of space. If Atlanta over commits, players like Daniel Royer must step up and put some 20-yard strikes on target. The first offensive objective all season was to have more shots on goal than the other team. The Red Bulls must at least triple up Atlanta United to find a 3-0 home scoreline.
Besides Wright-Phillips (20) and Royer (11) the Red Bulls find goals as a team. Alejandro Romero Gammara has six goals this season. No other player has more than three. There were 14 different Red Bulls players able to celebrate a score goal this year. Lawrence had two. With mostly packed stands and a full strength squad, the New York Red Bulls have pulled off 2-0 wins against Atlanta United as recently as the second to last home game of the season. Of course, thanks to MLS scheduling, that game was practically two months ago (September 30).
It can be done, but even 2-0 is not enough. Giving up a goal means the Red Bulls would need five in 90 minutes to advance. Giving up a goal would be the second to last nail in the season’s coffin. The referee’s whistle would sound the death kneel.
But the Red Bulls can find that clean sheet, just as they can find that third goal. The New York Red Bulls had the best home record this season at 14-2-1. The Red Bulls also allowed only 33 goals, best in MLS. New York was 11 goals better than Atlanta United (44 GA), and only the Seattle Sounders can claim fewer than 40 allowed. New York has the defensive talent and scheme to contain Atlanta.
But then, this is Atlanta. No team scored more in MLS.
The Red Bulls got to the MLS Eastern Conference Finals by being a hard-pressing team, constantly attacking the channels, in numbers, and providing service into Wright-Phillips. The Red Bulls pressed and were disciplined with their fouls.
They got to Atlanta by being a vicious yet efficient and clean team. But in the first leg, the Red Bulls out-thought themselves. In the second, the thinking goes out the window. It is back to basics and hoping that luck is on your side.