Boehm: How the Red Bulls stole Atlanta’s crown jewel(s?), and maybe more

Michael Parkhurst - Atlanta United - slides past - Justin Morrow - Toronto FC

“Pressure can burst pipes,” retired NBA great and legendary clutch performer Robert Horry once proclaimed, “but it also can make diamonds.”

It’s Sunday evening, and your team’s final regular-season match this afternoon probably reminded you of one or the other half of Big Shot Bob’s phrase. And in a few key cases, it’s dropped a couple of uneasy questions in your lap as we move into the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.

The 2018 edition of MLS Decision Day presented by AT&T illustrated both sides of this time-worn sports truism. For every proven postseason contender who confidently capped their campaign with an emphatic performance on the big occasion, we saw at least as many spirited outings from this year’s also-rans, the aspiring spoilers with with little to play for aside from pride, a spot on the roster and the simple, obdurate cussedness that beats at the heart of every party-crasher.

I’ll be honest: I’m glad no one asked me to predict Decision Day’s results. I figured we’d get some drama on the day, but even as I write this, I remain stunned by a good chunk of the proceedings. And I tip my cap to the upsetters who made it happen:

  • HOUSTON DYNAMOLa Naranja conjured up one of the most viciously, deliciously petty displays I’ve seen in pro soccer, letting the LA Galaxy think they were postseason-bound for over an hour before yanking the rug out from under them with a heartlessness that Charlie Brown’s eternal football-kicking tormentor Lucy would’ve admired. You can watch the highlights here but this subtly savage tweet sums it up:
  • NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION With nothing to play for on a chilly, windy Foxborough day aside from the grudging approval of a head coach who has for weeks been darkly hinting at a wholesale offseason roster purge, the Revs stuck the dagger in the plucky Montreal Impact’s flickering playoff hopes. Devil take the hindmost, indeed.
  • COLORADO RAPIDS Call them Dynamo Light, because the Mile High Club did some damage to the north half of Texas with that comeback win over FC Dallas much like Houston did to LA. And given how wobbly FCD have looked lately, dropping down the West bracket might just doom what once looked like a legit MLS Cup push.
  • VANCOUVER WHITECAPS They’ll say it was all about sending out Phonzie Davies in style. But VWFC’s defeat of a rotated Portland squad may have lasting reverberations for the Timbers, who like Dallas can ill afford to take a longer, steeper detour towards the Cup.
  • And let’s give it up for the day’s most impressively obstreperous resisters, the defending champs, TORONTO FC ...

It’s been a rough week for Atlanta United. On Tuesday morning, the Five Stripes confirmed weeks of media reporting that head coach Tata Martino would depart the club at year’s end, most likely to take over the Mexican national team, robbing ATLUTD of a key architect in their dizzying rise to MLS aristocracy.

The club made the choice to get that bad news over with now, in hopes of honing focus on the task of following through on the great second season Tata has presided over by completing their hunt for the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup trophies.

Unfortunately for them, everyone will have to spend another week wondering if that really worked as planned, because they turned in a limp performance against Toronto FC at BMO Field and were ruthlessly punished for it by a bloodied, bruised but proud TFC side just 12 months out from the greatest single season in league history. The 4-1 defeat left Atlanta's fate in the hands of the New York Red Bulls.

Most of us expected the RBNY, a dominant outfit on home turf for several years now, to take care of business against Orlando City SC at Red Bulls Arena. The Lions have been kicked around as brutally as anyone this year but upset Columbus last week and did their damnedest to pull off a similar track at RBA, young goalkeeper Adam Grinwis saving a Derrick Etienne penalty kick and denying the favorites on a couple of other clear chances. Etienne later redeemed himself, however, netting the winner in a 1-0 RBNY victory that kept the heat on ATL.

And when Toronto rolled back the clock to ruin the Five Stripes’ bid for the kind of greatness they attained last season – a month ago I asked whether Atlanta could reach the Reds’ GOAT status this year; the answer turns out to be a firm “No” – they not only delivered the Shield to the Red Bulls, but also threw a hefty psychological advantage in the postseason into the same karmic shipment.

“We did all this work, starting on January 15. We should have had a different performance today. We didn't,” said a brutally frank Tata postgame. “We betrayed ourselves, threw away everything we had worked for this season. It's always a possibility that you can lose away at Toronto, the important thing is the way that we lost it today.”

ATLUTD are about as low as a 21-7-6 team can be right now. They just blew an inviting opportunity to win their first-ever trophy and break TFC's most-points-in-a-season record. Their world-famous coach is leaving. Josef Martinez, their Golden Boot-winning strike ace, hasn’t scored a goal from open play in four games. They’re probably still stuck without their most important player, the hamstrung Miguel Almiron, for another week or two yet. And they have six days to get themselves right, or at least right enough to avoid being ambushed in the first leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series next weekend.

Even after TFC’s scintillating treble last year, there’s a lingering superstition about the Supporters’ Shield in some MLS circles – that it carries some sort of juju that jinxes playoff prospects. In MLS's 22 years of play, only seven Shield winners have gone on to hoist that year’s MLS Cup, and only three of those seven happened in the past decade.

That’s haunted the Red Bulls – long a star-crossed club with a long tradition of incredible playoff choke jobs – as much as anyone, and their Cup-hungry fans probably won’t be satisfied with a third Shield in six seasons. 

Yet this year feels different. Over the past several months RBNY stalked Atlanta like a pride of big cats closing in on their prey, striking at the last possible moment to inflict maximum pain and doubt on the flashy bunch that have topped the overall league table for the vast majority of the year. And did I mention that Team Taurine swept ATL this season and have yet to lose to them in four all-time meetings?

So... are the Five Stripes diamonds, or pipes? That’s the question that just walked up to Tata and his charges and poked them, hard, in the chest. And they’re running out of chances to prove that they’re precious.