Atlanta United took care of business Thursday night, advancing to the club's first MLS Cup final in its second season in existence with a 1-0 loss vs. the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. By virtue of the first-leg 3-0 rout in Atlanta, the Five Stripes advanced to the final on a 3-1 aggregate, bouncing the Supporters' Shield winners in the process.
The hill was always going to be a tall one to climb for New York, but a rather flat first half made the task even taller. Atlanta resisted any temptation to unleash its attacking stars and go at the Red Bulls, instead opting for the more pragmatic and safe approach that was required given the circumstances. After the first 90 minutes of the series, the job was effectively done. The second leg was about seeing out the result, which Atlanta did with relative ease.
The Red Bulls looked to have gotten on the board in the 80th minute, but for a second time in the series VAR disallowed the tally. This time, Aaron Long was judged to have fouled Brad Guzan as both went up for an aerial challenge (after a poor initial Guzan punch), wiping the goal off the board. New York nicked one late off a stoppage-time corner kick through Tim Parker, and while Atlanta finished off the result, it did suffer a potential setback just before the goal, when key defender Michael Parkhurst went down with an ankle injury. His status will be monitored closely in the buildup to the MLS Cup vs. Western Conference champion Portland that Atlanta will host.
Here are three throughts on Atlanta's triumph via defeat, and the Red Bulls' ouster despite victory:
Atlanta almost ended it immediately
The Red Bulls were the ones who needed to come out hot, but it was Atlanta that nearly scored off the opening kick, as Josef Martinez was amazingly gifted a chance to all but end the series 12 seconds into the match.
Jeff Larentowicz picked out Darlington Nagbe from the back line with a long pass down the center, and Tyler Adams's toe poke to take the ball off his USMNT teammate inadvertently played an unmarked Martinez in on goal. Luis Robles made the save on the MLS single-season goal record holder, allowing the Red Bulls to exhale early.
Robles had to make another tremendous save in the 21st minute, robbing an unmarked Julian Gressel of a low blast after a giveaway in the Red Bulls' half.
The Red Bulls, meanwhile, never really threatened in the first half. The best chance came with about five minutes to play, when Guzan collided with Gressel coming off his line for an aerial challenge, but he whiffed, gifting Adams a chance at a vacant goal. He rushed the chance, though, and skied it over the bar.
The Red Bulls pushed a bit more in the second half, with Atlanta content to sit back, and the hosts made tactical changes to get more attacking players on the field as the scoreless match continued to unfold, but nothing really worked. For a team that needed to show urgency and put relentless pressure on Atlanta, the Red Bulls, for a second straight match, had little to offer.
MLS Cup is coming to Atlanta
For the third time, the same stadium will host the MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup in one season.
In 2013, Kansas City hosted the showcase events, with Sporting KC outlasting Real Salt Lake on penalties to lift the trophy on home soil. In 2003, the San Jose Earthquakes and Chicago Fire played at the neutral site Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center) after the venue put on the MLS-Chivas Guadalajara All-Star Game.
In 2018, it's Atlanta's turn. With the Eastern Conference winner guaranteed to having the best regular-season record of the finalists, Atlanta has earned the right to stage the final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of 70,000+ of its closest friends, much like it did for the summer All-Star Game vs. Juventus. The scene, simply, is going to be nuts. In two years, Atlanta has emerged as an attendance powerhouse, not just on an MLS scale, but on a global scale. For a city not exactly known for its devout fandom, Atlanta United has resonated in a big way. If recent playoff experience is anything to draw upon, expect an MLS Cup spectacle the likes of which the league has never seen on Dec. 8.
Another missed opportunity for the Red Bulls
The wait goes on for New York.
Three Supporters' Shields in six years is remarkable, and in many ways should be lauded more than if the club had won three MLS Cups in that time. The MLS playoffs are akin to a cup competition, while the regular season requires sustained excellence. Yet MLS Cup is how franchises in this league are ultimately judged and remembered, and the club's trophy case is still empty in that regard. The truth is that leaking three goals in the first leg made this task entirely too tough, especially against a disciplined, experienced, well-coached and talented Atlanta side.
Had VAR not overturned Bradley Wright-Phillips's apparent equalizer in the first leg, we'll never know how the series would've turned out, but such are the margins in the playoffs. Sometimes it's a call, sometimes it's a post, sometimes it's a deflection. Historically, they haven't gone the Red Bulls' way, and that narrative remains alive heading into 2019.
Next season will be an interesting one for New York. Adams is expected to depart this winter to join former manager Jesse Marsch at RB Leipzig, which would leave a gaping hole in the midfield. Chris Armas, who took over for Marsch midseason, is reportedly in talks over a contract extension, which is a no-brainer. The system in place is designed for long-term success, and the Red Bulls should enjoy more of it in 2019, but reinforcements are going to be required if they are to finally get over the hump and lift the elusive trophy.