In the 90th minute, Tim Parker scored the New York Red Bulls’ final goal of the season from close range. It was the very definition of a consolation goal; the Red Bulls, despite a stellar home record and ability to score goals, needed two more than that. Ultimately, that the team did not get those goals was not much of a surprise. As Chris Armas put it rather simply in his post-match press conference, “Leg 1 ended up costing us.”
Atlanta United’s 3-0 victory on Sunday at Mercedes Benz Arena set the Red Bulls up with a seemingly insurmountable task on Thursday, a task they clearly did not succeed in. It ended a four day journey where they team went through a range of emotions.
“I know leaving Atlanta down 3-0 really frames what is going to be a difficult task, and yet there was so much optimism,” captain Luis Robles said. “One, the quality of the guys in this locker room, two, the ability that we feel we possess to overturn such a deficit, and then three, there’s just so much belief within this organization, within this locker room that we could do it. When it doesn’t work out, I think there’s just a lot of disappointment right now.”
On Thursday, Atlanta adjusted to be more defensive, knowing that the Red Bulls needed goals. It ended up working in the team’s favor, as the defense was able to stop so many of the Red Bulls’ opportunities. It was different from a more direct approach to the first leg, but the two game plans bore some resemblances and did the job of keeping the Red Bulls at bay.
“Their structure 5-3-2, again, it wasn’t a secret,” Armas said. “When you play like that, it’s just in the width of whatever it is, 44 yards, it’s just tough for us to really attack the spaces that we’re used to, the way we play, but we knew that, so coming in, we knew there would be space and we tried to open them up with different ways with width. … You give them a lot of credit, over the course of the series. They limited our big chances and congrats to them.”
The lasting takeaway, though, was all about that first leg. “It comes down to making plays,” Armas said. “Tonight, we win 1-0, right. We put out every fire that came our way. There’s a few of those that could have went the other way, not a ton of those, but there’s a few, and on the other side of the ball, we ake one play and there’s a few of those that we could do more of.”
Perhaps the worst part, from a Red Bulls point of view, was that the team was not pressing the way it has become known for for long stretches during the series. A more conservative set-up in leg one was partly an adjustment to the absence of left back Kemar Lawrence, but after conceding towards the end of the first half, the Red Bulls hardly got into a rhythm, and could not manage that on Thursday, either.
“We lost our aggressiveness, and we were not ourselves as much,” Armas said about Sunday’s match. “We’ll look hard at that and see how we can improve that, and all the time, be thinking about how to stick to who we are and a game plan. But I’m all-in on this, the philosophy. Let me tell you, it’s in so many ways ideal.”
No matter how the next several months play out, the harsh defeat on Sunday and the performance during the series might stick with the Red Bulls for a while, Robles noted. For him, though, it also is a source of motivation as the countdown begins to the 2019 season.
“Over the next couple weeks, you step away from all of it and you try to
evaluate what’s going on and that disappointment may not go away, but I can say that it will fuel me for next season,” he said. “As long as we haven’t won it, there’s always going to be that motivation to continue to go because it’s all I can do. That’s all I can do.”