Strong defensive performance carries Atlanta United to unimaginable MLS Cup

HARRISON, N.J. — Before dancing on the podium, before lifting the Eastern Conference Championship trophy, before the confetti and team photo, Greg Garza shared a moment with Josef Martinez

It was brief, a quick exchange between teammates after the final whistle at Red Bull Arena. But it spoke of the remarkable journey the two have made, from expansion hopeful to MLS Cup in just two short seasons. 

“I said man, I don’t think we could have ever imagined this two years ago,” Garza said. “Coming into a new project, into a new team, 26, 27 guys who had no idea who each other was and we’ve created something special, not only for ourselves, but for the coaching staff and the city. The city of Atlanta deserves something like this and hopefully we can finish it off next week.”

Atlanta United will compete in MLS Cup, and will do so at Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Saturday against the Portland Timbers (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS) after beating a New York Red Bulls team 3-1 on aggregate Michael Parkhurst called “the best team in MLS history.”

Parkhurst knew the Red Bulls were going to push hard for goals, which meant a collectively strong defensive performance was a must. An Atlanta team known for its high-flying, attacking ways, again bunkered down and did what had to be done to win a playoff game. 

“We talked about how they’re such a good team at winning second balls. If you don’t get clearances they just keep coming and coming and they put balls in the box and they win second balls. They’re just so dangerous in that aspect,” Parkhurst said of the Red Bulls. “We wanted to make sure when we clear the ball that we got it behind their backs, gave our forwards a chance to run on it. We did that a little bit and otherwise we just defended hard. We fought hard for the first ball, our midfielders fought hard for the second ball. We knew it wasn’t going to be that pretty, that we weren’t going to connect a ton of passes, but we dug in and we fought.”

Garza said it was going to be “blood or glory for 90 minutes” and the Five Stripes showed their grit. 

“It wasn’t a pretty one, playoffs are never pretty,” he said. “But what definitely matters in playoffs is results.”

And now that group of strangers from two years ago are a band of brothers who could be bonded together forever with a win next Saturday in the MLS Cup final

“This team, we have so much talent, so many guys who have come from so many different places, they have so much experience in playing in big leagues and their national teams,” Garza said. “I think that all comes down to the chemistry on the field and off of it. I’m very proud of these guys.”