The New York Red Bulls aren’t used to being on the positive side of Major League Soccer playoffs history.
In order to host MLS Cup on December 8 at Red Bull Arena, Chris Armas’ team needs to lock all of the franchise’s postseason demons in a closet and flush the key down the toilet.
The Red Bulls face a three-goal deficit against Atlanta United entering the Thursday’s second leg of the Eastern Conference Final, and their fate gets even more bleak if the Five Stripes finish a single away goal.
While the margins are thin for the Red Bulls, Atlanta is playing with a cushion, but if you think anyone in Georgia is feeling comfortable about Thursday’s game, you aren’t aware of Atlanta’s brutal sports playoff history, which is even more depressing than what the Red Bulls have done in their existence.
First Leg Recap
Atlanta cruised through the first leg at home after Armas got his tactics wrong and allowed the Five Stripes to dominate the contest.
Josef Martinez, Franco Escobar and Hector Villalba scored for Gerardo Martino’s side to earn the franchise’s first win over the Red Bulls.
Players to Watch
New York Red Bulls: Bradley Wright-Phillips
One of the most prolific scorers in MLS history must deliver a show-stopping performance on his home field in order to propel the Red Bulls to MLS Cup.
In three postseason games, Bradley Wright-Phillips attempted five shots, with only one going on goal.
Dating back to September 22, the Englishman has one tally in his last seven games.
If you go back even further, Wright-Phillips has found the back of the net six times since the start of August.
Atlanta United: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
The second leg is all about defense for the Five Stripes, and don’t be surprised to see a defensive-minded formation out of Martino.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is one of two, or maybe three, center backs tasked with disrupting any actions 20 yards and in from the Red Bulls attackers.
If the visitors are able to get to halftime without conceding a goal, they’ll be in terrific shape to host MLS Cup on December 8.
Getting to the halfway point scoreless will be difficult, as the Red Bulls push all of their resources into the Atlanta half, but as long as Gonzalez Pirez prevents the incisive runs made by Wright-Phillips, his team stands a good chance of advancing.
Matchup to Watch
Kaku vs. Atlanta’s Defense
While Wright-Phillips gets the attention for scoring, Kaku is the creator in the Red Bulls attack, and if he can’t get going, the game will be over before it starts.
A single player won’t be tasked with containing the Red Bulls No. 10, as a collective unit in different parts of the field will be assigned to the 23-year-old.
It starts with whoever lines up in the defensive midfield, whether it be Julian Gressel, Eric Remedi or Jeff Larentowicz.
Then, the line of center backs headlined by Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst has to hold its position, or step up on occasion to thwart the threat.
Larentowicz was a part of a three-man center back lineup in the first leg, and he might be in that spot on Thursday night to prevent the Red Bulls’ advances.
New York Red Bulls: Sean Davis
It’s no secret the Red Bulls are going to push forward from the first whistle, which means the Five Stripes will be more than prepared to deal with the front four Armas trots out to the field.
The X-factor for the home side will be Sean Davis, who is going to have creep ahead from his central midfield position to provide the Red Bulls with an extra outlet in the final third.
Davis’ importance is two-fold, as he’ll also be a key figure in the middle of the field when Tyler Adams eventually surges forward in his attempt to break down Atlanta’s back line.
In those instances, Davis has to act as a protector on the counterattack if Adams is too far forward when Atlanta breaks down the field.
Atlanta United: Greg Garza
Four days after Franco Escobar turned in a Man of the Match performance for the Five Stripes, the other full back in the lineup will do his part to stop the Red Bulls.
In the 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 setup Martino is expected to deploy, Greg Garza will end up at left back or left winger, and he’ll be tasked with silencing the output of Alex Muyl, Marc Rzatkowski or whoever else runs through the channels on that side of the field.
Garza is one of a few experienced players in the Atlanta defense that should make life difficult for the Red Bulls, and there’s a good chance we’ll be gushing with praise for Atlanta’s defenders for once instead of oozing with amazement over what Martinez and Co. did over the course of 90 minutes.
Rarely does it take this long to eschew superlatives about Atlanta’s attacking players in a preview, but this is one of the few cases in which the defense must outperform the offense.
With the Red Bulls expected to go back to their pressing system, Atlanta’s defenders will be under pressure from the start, but they have the composure and big-game experience to withstand whatever the hosts thrown at them, and trust us the Red Bulls will do everything they can think of to score.
Atlanta’s attackers will come into play on the counter, as Martinez and Miguel Almiron attempt to catch the Red Bulls off guard when they commit too many numbers forward.
All it takes for the Five Stripes to clinch the series is one move forward that turns into an away goal.
A perfect performance from the Red Bulls might not be good enough, but they scored three goals in eight of their victories this season. so they are more than capable of turning in the necessary performance.
However, three goals just gets the Red Bulls to extra time, and if we even get to that point, we’ll be in for one of the wildest playoff finishes in MLS history.
Make no mistake about it, Atlanta is the favorite to advance to MLS Cup, but given the playoff fortunes of the city, few are approaching it that way.
If the Five Stripes don’t fall victim to the failures the Falcons and Braves have gone through, the other fan base with experience suffering through disappointing playoff finishes will be left with a sour taste in their mouths going into 2019.