HARRISON, N.J. — The series may have been two legs, but it was practically over after the first.
Atlanta United knocked out the New York Red Bulls to secure a place in the MLS Cup Final on Thursday night, advancing from the Eastern Conference Finals via a 3-1 aggregate score. While Atlanta United lost the second leg, 1-0, the club reached the championship game with relative ease and a defensive performance that it had the luxury of going with thanks to the surprising 3-0 win down in Atlanta over the weekend.
“Our home game was fundamental, the advantage we established was fundamental,” said Atlanta United head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. “That difference is what allowed us to deploy and play the game that we played tonight.”
Even with the knowledge that an away goal would kill off any idea of a Red Bulls comeback and even after creating a clear-cut chance just 12 seconds into Thursday’s affair, Martino opted to have his side take a pragmatic approach inside of Red Bull Arena to protect the healthy aggregate lead.
Atlanta finished with just under 31 percent possession and 49 percent passing in the second bout, preferring to routinely clear the ball upfield or into the stands whenever the Red Bulls got deep into its territory. The tactical emphasis was on not giving New York any turnovers, which Chris Armas’ side’s vaunted high press is known for creating, that could lead to easy chances and boost a rally attempt.
“We didn’t want to nourish them or allow them to grow into the game,” said Atlanta United centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. “I think one of the ways to not allow them to grow into the match is to not give them loose balls, not give them balls close to the area, not make silly mistakes. We accomplished that.”
A key if not decisive element that allowed Atlanta to play that way on Thursday was the absence of New York’s high press in the opening leg. Many, including Atlanta United, were mystified by just how deep the Red Bulls dropped and how little they pressed in advanced positions given that those tactics have been their bread and butter for years now. After all, it is what allowed New York to suffocate Atlanta during their last regular season meeting in September and what what allowed the Red Bulls to edge Atlanta United for the Supporters’ Shield last month.
Atlanta knew from studying film that New York was more selective with its high press when playing as the visitor, but nonetheless was surprised by the overall reactive approach from its opponents at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s always uncomfortable when a team presses you high, but in that game they didn’t do it, or did it less,” said Martino. “But it’s also true that their approach also caught us by surprise from what we had prepared. We expected something else but luckily our team is accustomed to being the protagonist when the other team lets us so what we had to do was return to our source.”
Added Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst: “You plan for the high press and it’s easier to adjust if they’re not pressing.”
Atlanta replicated the style of play that it showed in Eastern Conference Semifinals against New York City FC by throwing numbers behind the ball and staying organized. Atlanta United clogged the middle, forcing the Red Bulls to try and create from wide positions.
The Red Bulls had little success with that, with only a spell of 10-15 minutes in the second half proving troubling for Atlanta, and struggled to carve open the back line. Their attacking troubles showed once again how tough Atlanta United can be defensively, something which Martino said he began to have his side work on more specifically late in the year.
“The team’s build-up was poor and it resulted in few chances and we gave up too many goals during the final few games of the regular season,” said Martino. “The way it was going wasn’t going to lead to success in the playoffs, so we had to opt for a different style of play that we had played during the regular season. That being, a five-man back line.
“It’s been what’s given us the most security at the back that we have had.”
Now, Atlanta United is hoping to carry its overall play from this series, particularly the attacking in the first leg and the defending in the second, into the MLS Cup Final the club will host against the Portland Timbers on Dec. 8.
Atlanta has shown this offseason that it can play and win games in different ways, and is confident that can help as it attempts to accomplish the ultimate goal of winning the MLS title.
“I think it gives confidence and calmness to know we have a team that can adapt to different situations,” said Martino. “We played the game this way because we planned it this way, but sometimes you have to play this way because of the other team’s quality and you have to know how to handle it.”