Atlanta United will again have to go through greater New York if it wants to win MLS Cup. After beating a New York team in a baseball stadium, Atlanta will have to get a result against a New York team from New Jersey. Nowhere else in MLS can a soccer league be so adept at capturing its country’s biggest media market. This time, the Five Stripes will have to get a result against the team that it lost the Supporters’ Shield to in the final week of the season. Arguably, the shield was lost well before that. The two losses to the New York Red Bulls in the regular season represented a 12 point swing in the standings that allowed the team to stay within striking distance of Atlanta down the stretch. What’s more, since this is MLS, the series will be between the two best teams in the league and will feature a second leg match on a Thursday night at a stadium that is actually inaccessible by car, foot, public transit, or boat. Before that, Atlanta United and 70,000 fans will pack Mercedes Benz Stadium for the last time before MLS Cup in the first leg against the best team in MLS history.
New York Press Bulls
Somehow, the New York Red Bulls managed to survive the loss of the indomitable Sacha Kljestan. It turns out that even without a player who helped his new team score 28 points in the league this year, Bradley Wright-Phillips managed to have one of his best seasons in MLS. Sure that didn’t earn him a callup to the England National Team, but the striker did manage 20 goals with a career high eight assists. In the last match against NYCFC, Atlanta gave up an awful goal on a set piece where Franco Escobar seemed to give up on playing defense and Maxime Chanot headed home an easy goal. It didn’t end up mattering, but it is the kind of chance that the Red Bulls will exploit and that BWP has made a career out of finishing.
While BWP has the most attention grabbing stats, the most important player to how the Red Bulls season unfolded is Tyler Adams. The teenager stepped up this year and perfected the team’s press. When New York is trying to win the ball back Adams is stepping into passing lanes, making interceptions, and generally being a nuisance to the opposition. In transition, play goes through Adams who then looks to either help set up a scoring chance on his own or look to playmaker Kaku to make something happen. Adams pairs with Sean Davis to form the best central midfield duo in MLS and their ability to control the game will be critical for New York to keep their winning streak against Atlanta going.
At this point, there are no surprises with New York. The team uses the press as both its best offensive and defensive weapon and has perfected it behind Adams this season. That with the excellent goalkeeping of Luis Robles should have the absolute necessity of Atlanta United finishing its chances in attack while being completely focused without possession apparent in the match.
Now or never
Atlanta United has never won against the New York Red Bulls and has had two of its worst performances of the year against the team. However, the final scores don’t quite tell the story. Back in May, Atlanta was taking the game to New York jumping out to what looked like an early 2-0 lead until Chris Penso overturned a goal scored by Josef Martinez in the 31st minute. It was a controversial decision that was part of a number of VAR calls across the league that seemed to show that the league rolled out the technology without properly training officials in its implementation.