Thanks to the New York Red Bulls rallying past Columbus Crew SC at home on Sunday night in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, MLS fans are set to be treated to a duel between the Supporters' Shield winners and runners-up Atlanta United in the next round of the playoffs.
This is not an insignificant occurrence. This year's Eastern Conference Championship will mark just the fifth time in 23 seasons that the top two teams in the overall league table have locked horns in the postseason. And since the San Jose Earthquakes topped the Chicago Fire at MLS Cup 15 years ago, it's happened only once: the 2014 Western Conference Final between the Seattle Sounders and the victorious LA Galaxy.
This time, we're set up for arguably the most titanic clash in MLS playoff history. The Red Bulls and Atlanta don't merely stand first and second in the 2018 Supporters’ Shield standings, they have the top two single-season points totals in league history.
What's more, the gulf between them and the third-best team this season (Sporting KC) is larger than that of any of the previous No. 1 vs. No. 2 postseason match-ups. In what I would consider to be the strongest MLS field yet, they also boast two of the best goal differentials of all time.
Buckle up, folks, this is shaping up to be a thrilling, highest-level, star-studded, toe-to-toe rock 'em-sock 'em for the ages. It's Godzilla vs. King Kong. It's Neo vs. Agent Smith. It's Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, circa 1971. It's Ali vs. Frazier.
Actually, that last one might be most appropriate, at least from a stylistic standpoint. The Red Bulls are Ali — a wily rope-a-dope artist that gets into your head and wears you down to set up the knockout punch. The Five Stripes are Smokin' Joe — a supremely skilled slugger with scary punching power that plays better defense than often given credit for. Of course, unlike Frazier against Ali, Atlanta United have yet to defeat the Red Bulls (0-3-1 in four regular season tries).
The East rivals also have some similarities. Both love to turn your possession mistakes into offense and both get more deadly as the game wears on. Atlanta score right about 60% of their goals after intermission and nearly 25% of them in the final 15 minutes, while the corresponding Red Bull numbers are 58% and an astounding 27.7%.
And obviously, both have deep squads led by a gang of players at the peak of their powers. The Red Bulls feature strike stud Bradley Wright-Phillips, 2018 Defender of the Year Aaron Long, Goalkeeper of the Year runner-up Luis Robles, MLS Best XI left back Kemar Lawrence and midfield power source Tyler Adams.
Atlanta will come to battle with record-setting Golden Boot man Josef Martinez, industrious fellow MVP finalist/Best XI honoree Miguel Almiron, underrated plug-and-play difference maker Julian Gressel, intellectual backline marshal Michael Parkhurst, and USMNT netminder Brad Guzan.
Frankly, I don't have enough space here to run down all the excellence contained within these two sides and you all know them anyway. Even the coaching match-up is heavy with intrigue, up to and including "handshake-gate."
Animated and tactically stylish, Atlanta United boss Tata Martino is trying to bring the club it's first title before he heads out the door. Loaded with both club and international experience, he is the first head coach in his team's brief history and owns the highest points-won-per-game average in MLS history among those with at least 20 games under their belts.
Red Bulls counterpart Chris Armas is generally more studious in his manner, but sends his team out to disrupt and drive the opponent batty. He's aiming to become just the second to win MLS Cup after taking over mid-season (after Seattle's Brian Schmetzer in 2016), the third to raise the trophy as both player and coach (after Piotr Nowak and Peter Vermes), and of course, the first to do it in long-suffering New York.
The only thing these two clubs lack is an MLS Cup for the trophy case, and there's only room for one of them in this year's final. In one corner stands a team that is way past tired of coming up short in the playoffs, and in the other stands the one they just pipped for the regular season crown. This home-and-away bout must wait until after the international break, so you have plenty of time to get all lathered up for a throwdown you may well never forget.