Atlanta United FC cruised to a comfortable 3-1 aggregate win in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals on Nov. 29 at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. United’s 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls did not impact the aggregate score, allowing them to finally win some silverware to support their domestic success. Importantly, United got revenge on their conference rivals after the Red Bulls snatched the Supporters’ Shield from Atlanta’s grasp on the last day of the regular season on Oct. 28. At long last, United finally rewarded their diehard fan base and followed up their remarkable success in the regular season with a well-deserved Eastern Conference Championship trophy.
Just 12 seconds into the game, Atlanta forward and talisman Josef Martinez had a golden one-on-one opportunity with Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. But Robles made a brilliant point-blank save to deny Martinez.
Martinez lost the chance to effectively end the game and silence the boisterous New York crowd. While a 4-0 lead would be insurmountable on its own, the official MLS rules favor away goals over home goals. If Martinez had scored, then the Red Bulls would have needed five goals to win the conference title on aggregate score.
Again, Atlanta preceded their phenomenal attacking reputation and pushed for the contest-winning goal. In the 20th minute, midfielder Julian Gressel fired a low, long-range shot outside the box, but Robles made a full dive to push the shot wide. One of the few bright spots in the Red Bulls’ disappointing performance, Robles played brilliantly, making four saves to keep New York in the game and give the home crowd some hope until the final whistle.
In the second half, New York enjoyed some promising possessions, and looked poised to score a goal as they closed in on Atlanta’s goal. In the 51st minute, the Red Bulls missed the opportunity they needed to give them a realistic chance of winning. The attacking move started when forward Daniel Royer played an incisive pass into the goal box to fellow forward Alejandro “Kaku” Romero. Then, Kaku hit a low, driven cross toward goal, with one of the best passes of the game.
New York played the ball into the perfect space, too far for the goalkeeper to claim and close enough to concern any defense. While midfielder Alex Muyl received the pass about three yards from goal, he misjudged the pass and skewed his shot wide. After that missed chance, the Red Bulls lacked any kind of offensive edge despite enjoying 70 percent
That is, until New York appeared to score in the 80th minute. Kaku again was at the center of the action when he delivered a lackluster cross to nobody in particular. But, when Atlanta tried to head the ball out of the box, the ball looped into the air.
Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan came out to punch the ball to safety. But he only proved that goalkeepers should stay away from professional boxing when he punched the ball straight up. On the second chance, Guzan tried to catch the ball, but New York defender Aaron Long headed the ball out of Guzan’s hands and into the net.
Guzan and Atlanta were furious. Since Guzan appeared to have control of the ball, and jostling with the goalkeeper after he or she has possession of the ball is against the rules, the Red Bulls had not scored a legitimate goal. The video review system (VAR) was used to examine the goal, and the technology overturned the New York goal.
While the review made the correct decision, the outcome was tough for the Red Bulls as this was their second goal of the conference finals ruled out by VAR.
However, the Red Bulls would not back down. New York stole Guzan’s clean sheet when they scored from a corner in stoppage time. The ball landed awkwardly in front of Guzan, but when neither the Atlanta defense nor he attempted to clear the ball, New York defender Tim Parker poked the ball into the net. But with only one minute left to score two points, the goal was one of the most anticlimactic of the entire MLS postseason. Not a single Red Bulls player celebrated as they knew the result of the game was a foregone conclusion.
Atlanta will be giddy with excitement when they host and contest the MLS Cup on Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Importantly, outgoing Atlanta United Head Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino will look to end his reign by winning the most coveted trophy in American soccer in his final game with United.