The New York Red Bulls demolished Atlanta United on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena. The 2-0 victory keeps the Supporters’ Shield race kicking, as the Red Bulls move within one point of the Five Stripes with three to play. It also made a pretty heavy statement about a potential playoff matchup. I don’t know how RBNY fans didn’t watch that game and feel giddy, or how Atlanta fans didn’t watch it with dread, thinking about what the Eastern Conference Championship could hold.
This was the most I’ve enjoyed watching a game in a couple years. As a former player, I fall into the category of guys that don’t feel a need to put on boots very often anymore. The adrenaline rushes no longer come. But this game lit a fire.
The game was played at such a fast pace that players couldn't hide: Every player on the field had to step at all times. If any one of the Red Bulls didn’t execute their job in the press, Atlanta could break through and have tons of space to attack. If anyone from Atlanta didn't ask for the ball, his teammate got smothered.
Ideally, every match would be played like that -- coaches certainly beg their players to do it -- but they aren’t; most, at all levels, allow breaks and mistakes. It’s rare to find a game when every second and every play matter. But when it does, it’s the best type of game to be in.
Players (as I’ve always seen it) want to be challenged; they want to be given a bar to overcome. It’s nice to play the beautiful games, but what players really crave is the chance to step up.
Sometimes a game asks a player to be particularly sharp with the ball -- and those games certainly feel satisfying. Other times, a player needs to deal with constant mental and emotional demands -- and those games feel the best. You constantly have to think, to evaluate, to decide. Every second is demanding. It gets exhausting, but you step up again and again. There’s something about overcoming those “Crap, do I really have to do this right now?” demons that just feels so good.
In Sunday’s game, every player had to be brave, had to be smart, had to be mentally sharp. They had to do all of the things that either keep us up at night or allow us to sleep soundly.
That’s what players want from a game, to be held to the highest standard and demanded to match it. They don’t necessarily ruminate over the misplaced passes, but rather dwell on the moment they were too scared to ask for the ball. Shrink or rise. After the game, either you did meet the moment and you feel amazing (Red Bulls) or you didn’t and you want nothing more than to get another chance at it (Atlanta).
As Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after the game, “It was their intensity, their being up for the game, hungriness. It wasn’t tactical, it wasn’t the high press, it wasn’t anything like that. It was plain and simple: We didn’t show up.” He’s underplaying the tactical aspects; the Red Bulls also won the chess play. But, more importantly, they never took a second off.
It’s the purest form of the professional-athlete feedback loop, the feeling of being forced to be at your best.
A re-test will likely come again in the playoffs. The Red Bulls have now passed twice. Atlanta will be dying to get another chance.