A goal by Josef Martinez deep into second-half stoppage time proved to be just cosmetic, with Atlanta United falling 2-1 at home to the New York Red Bulls Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It was a gut-punch of a defeat for an Atlanta team desperately trying to climb above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line.
But Martinez’s goal, his 100th in an Atlanta shirt in 150 appearances – the fastest in MLS history to reach that milestone – was also a statement of intent. That there’s still fight in the Five Stripes, that they’ll continue to battle down the stretch drive of the regular season.
“Simply we have to keep working. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of important points. But we’ve been suffering this since the first game, it’s not the first time,” Martinez said after the match. "So we have to keep going, don’t lose hope. Last year we were in last place and ended up in the playoffs.
"We still have games to play, we’ve played less games, and we have to fight until the end. If we can, we can, if not, keep working. Maybe for the younger guys they have more years but we have to keep going, keep working."
Atlanta, which secured four valuable points from their last two matches thanks to late goals from left back Andrew Gutman, are 13th in the Eastern Conference table, four points below the playoff line with nine matches remaining. The gap is surmountable, but opportunities are fading to make progress.
“If you are not going to believe, then you should not be on the team. I do not think you should be playing professional soccer if that is the case,” Gutman said. “I think everyone in this group believes that we can make the playoffs, believes that we can win games, and I know this is three points lost at home, but we can easily make it up on Sunday and be in a better position”
Next up, Atlanta take on the Columbus Crew in another massive six-pointer Sunday at Lower.com Field (5:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes). The Crew are fifth in the East with 34 points.
“From here on out every match is a final for us,” right back Brooks Lennon said. “We can’t drop points from here on out. Tonight, was very disappointing and we all know that. But we just gotta regroup and get ready for Sunday.”
Red Bulls bounce back
Meanwhile the Red Bulls snapped a three-match winless streak and stayed at fourth place in the Eastern Conference table, just two points behind struggling NYCFC and three from second-place Montréal, though both rivals have a game in hand.
It was a bounce-back result from a disappointing 1-0 loss to Orlando City SC at Red Bull Arena last Saturday, and the Red Bulls improved to 8W-0L-4D all-time in regular-season matches against Atlanta.
“It was a big, massive win today and it gives us a big boost for everything that is coming,” head coach Gerhard Struber said. “We know the table is so extremely close and our goal is to [be one of] the top teams in the league. Today we make the necessary first step back, but not more.”
In addition to the two goals scored in the opening 15 minutes, Struber was especially pleased by how his team played the Red Bull way, showcasing their “signature” throughout the 90 minutes and taking the game to the hosts.
“In the end, we know Atlanta has outstanding quality in their roster, but I think our principles, our typical identity, crashed them with big hits," Struber said. "This was not only the goals that we scored, this was more our behavior over the whole game time.”
New York improved to 8W-3L-3D on the road this season, their 27 points leading the league and standing as the second-most in club history.
However, five of their final eight remaining regular-season matches will be at Red Bull Arena, beginning with Saturday’s showdown against FC Cincinnati (6 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). They're just 3W-5L-4D at home this year.
“That just shows our road form this year and I think that just shows we are resilient,” homegrown defender John Tolkin said. “It hasn’t come off at home a lot this year, but that’s definitely a good stepping stone for us, an important win for us and we’ll carry this momentum into Cincy.”
WATCH: New York Red Bulls dent Atlanta United’s playoff hopes