HARRISON, N.J. — Kemar Lawrence has been carrying an anger inside of him since November, since Atlanta United defeated the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Championship and he couldn’t play because of an MCL injury.
It doesn’t make up for an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs defeat, but the Jamaican international felt a little redemption when the 10-man Red Bulls defeated Atlanta, 1-0, Sunday at Red Bull Arena.
“I had the worst offseason last year knowing I was injured, knowing I couldn't help my team,” Lawrence said. “The only thing I could do is text the guys or try to motivate guys. So getting back from injury and facing these guys when I'm getting really at my full fitness level, it was just amazing. And only thing on my mind was to repay them for how my team felt last year. And I felt like we did that tonight.”
Lawrence’s anger on Sunday was mostly directed at Atlanta winger Hector Villalba. The two battled all night, but were at the center of a stoppage-time confrontation that carried over after the final whistle blew.
Lawrence said Villalba “said something nasty” when Lawrence laid on the ground following a diving headed clearance late in regulation.
The Red Bulls left back responded in kind a few moments later by standing over Villalba and screaming at him following a hard tackle that sent the Argentine to the ground.
“The last play was a 50-50 ball and [Lawrence], I don’t think he went in with the best intentions,” Villalba said. “I don’t know why. We’ve played against them a bunch of times and I’ve never not shown respect. I don’t know what he was thinking.”
Lawrence laughed at that notion.
“Lack of respect? No, honestly, I can tell you what I said. I said bring your best,” Lawrence said. “I said ‘Come on, bring your best. I see you bring your best against every guy week in and week out, I want your best.’ That’s what I said. So if he feels like that's disrespectful, that’s his problem.”
After the game, the two went chest to chest, with Lawrence motioning rocking a baby with his arms, while Villalba gestured by lifting a trophy over his head.
Hector Villalba mimics holding up a trophy after Atlanta's loss to the Red Bulls. | Vincent Carchietta-USA Today Images
“He was doing some stuff afterwards that, I don’t know, in my opinion is a bit immature,” Red Bulls captain Luis Robles said of Villalba. “Like when you’re the champion there's got to be a class to the way you conduct yourself and some of the things he was doing didn't really represent the class that I think Atlanta are.”
As for the fireworks after the final whistle, Lawrence said it’s “just football.”
“I’ve got to do what I’ve got do for my team,” he continued “This is a business. Every now and then you're going to find the one player that you don't like. A lot of guys around the league like me. If one guy don’t like me, I can’t make everyone like me.
“I can tell you to be honest, they haven't beaten us with me in the lineup. That I know for sure.”
Also in the post-match melee, Red Bulls goalkeeping coach Preston Burpo had to be physically restrained from Brad Guzan as the former Chivas USA teammates continued the animosity.
“I loved it. I dapped him up afterwards,” Robles said. “He is a loyal guy. And he has everyone's back. and they were teammates, I'm sure they’re friends as well. But Preston doesn't back down from anyone and, and when I saw it from afar, I was ready to have his back as well.”
This only sets the table for what should be an exciting return fixture at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 7 as the rivalry between two of the Eastern Conference leaders continues to percolate.
“I feel like when we go back to Atlanta, it’s not going to be nice,” Lawrence said laughing. “I feel like this is on the top of the list. I feel like there's really a rivalry there. And you know when we go there because of the way their fans respond to everything and try to raise the level of noise in the stadium. I feel like it's a big rivalry.”