National Writer: Charles Boehm

Derby of spite: Atlanta, Red Bulls renew hostilities in another "humongous" clash

Time, as we are so often told, can be a flat circle.

So it seems in MLS this week, as Wednesday brings us a high-stakes clash (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) between two teams whose quality, styles and genuine dislike of one another made for one of the league’s best matchups just a couple of years ago.

I’m talking about Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls, who lock horns in Harrison, New Jersey with their respective postseason fates intertwined in the countdown to Decision Day 2021. On Tuesday ATL wingback Brooks Lennon called it “a humongous game,” and that’s a worthy adjective.

Separated by one point while occupying the Eastern Conference’s final two slots in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, these two sides need points to stay above the line, and possibly even earn the right to host a playoff match. The Red Bulls can clinch qualification with a win, and could eventually climb as high as second place; Atlanta need only a draw to assure themselves of a spot (plus Montréal L/D to Houston) and a victory keeps them in contention for a home game once the proverbial second season kicks off later this month.

That second scenario would be historic for ATLUTD because they’ve never won at Red Bull Arena, not even on the occasion where New York City FC were their hosts there. They’ve never beaten RBNY in regular-season play at all, a striking factoid given all the success they’ve enjoyed since their inception.

The Five Stripes have only been playing games since 2017, of course, and their lofty ambitions from the jump put them into almost immediate competition with the Red Bulls, near-perennial East contenders who haven’t missed out on the playoffs since 2009. Thus these two have managed to squeeze several very meaningful matches into their short history, and they’ve featured no shortage of flashpoints, as my colleague Jonathan Sigal detailed in this piece last year.

First there was Atlanta’s inaugural match, where the visiting Red Bulls spoiled the party at a packed Bobby Dodd Stadium with a comeback win. Then the two clubs finished 1-2 atop the overall MLS standings in 2018, racing one another to the Supporters’ Shield down the stretch in a duel that wasn’t decided until the last day, where Atlanta's loss at Toronto opened the door for RBNY to snatch the Shield away with a win over Orlando.

United would enjoy the last laugh when they met again in the postseason, riding a 3-0 first-leg win at home to a 3-1 aggregate triumph in that year’s Eastern Conference Championship, which set the stage for their euphoric defeat of Portland in the MLS Cup Final.

After his previous struggles against Jesse Marsch and Chris Armas, Tata Martino solved the RBNY high-press puzzle with some direct tactics of his own, bypassing the midfield to good effect in that ECS series.

“When you’ve been knocked down by an opponent so many times, you have to keep looking for ways to reverse things,” said the Argentine after the crucial first-leg result. “I’m not saying we’ve found the way to do that, but tonight it worked out well for us.”

For whatever reasons, the Five Stripes also labored against the Red Bulls under his underwhelming successors Frank de Boer and Gabriel Heinze, setting the stage for current coach Gonzalo Pineda to attack this old problem this time around.

“I don’t go a lot through that history\],” [Pineda said on Tuesday. “What I go through is the way the team is performing, preparing the team mentally and physically for this battle, and making sure that everybody understands how good we’ve been the last few games, and that we just need to continue improving and continue the same way we’ve been playing.”

Many of the key figures from those 2018 cage matches have moved on, and perhaps that means a reduction in the volume of spite that has flowed in both directions, from the Martino-Armas HandshakeGate in 2018 to Tito Villalba’s trophy-lift taunting of Kemar Lawrence the following spring.

Or maybe not.

The consequences of a defeat on Wednesday are significant. And the prospects of drama are substantial, considering that Atlanta have lately shown a tendency to drop points late in games while the Red Bulls have conversely made a habit of last-ditch winners like Fabio’s against Montréal over the weekend.

While ATL and RBNY have flashed differing interpretations of the transition game, both love to get out and run in open space, which could treat us viewers to an end-to-end spectacle. In general, neither Pineda nor his counterpart Gerhard Struber seem particularly inclined to close up shop and keep things tight in tactical terms. Here’s hoping all that adds up another memorable chapter.