ATLANTA – Atlanta United picked the perfect time to finally beat the New York Red Bulls. For the first time in five tries, the Five Stripes won 3-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday afternoon in a convincing performances that leaves the Red Bulls in a deep hole in the second leg this Thursday.
“It’s obviously a big win under these circumstances, in this environment, this point in the season,” said Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst. “It’s a massive victory for us against a very, very good team. It’s nice that it came at this point of the season under these circumstances.”
Despite waves of success in their first two MLS seasons, Atlanta struggled to figure out the Red Bulls. New York, who claimed the Supporters' Shield in 2013, 2015 and again this year at Atlanta's expense, held a 3-0-1 record against the Five Stripes heading into Sunday's game. That included a comprehensive 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena at the end of September that proved decisive in the Red Bulls claiming the the Shield this year.
However, several members of Atlanta United pointed to a difference in intensity between this victory and their previous losses.
“When we were up in New York, we weren’t even on the same level as them,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said of the September loss. “Between that result and the result in Toronto [a 4-1 loss on Decision Day], that really lit a fire under us in terms of knowing we needed to compete and we needed to compete everywhere. Today we did that.”
Over in the Red Bulls locker room, there was a sense that they did not bring the intensity needed to match the occasion.
“It is obviously frustrating for us,” said Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis. “This is the playoffs and we need to know what to expect. It is disappointing, but at least we get to go home and that is where we have been so good this year.”
Said Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles: “[Atlanta] are a good team,” “They have been good all year. They have been explosive. At home they are amazing. I think, just looking at the way that we gave up the goals, we lacked some discipline. We made it a little too easy for them. When you have a team as talented as them, and you make mistakes, they are going to punish you.”
Outside of Atlanta's dominance on the day, it was clear from the proceedings that there was little love lost between the two teams. The match contained hard challenges galore, as well as some verbal jawing during the first half between New York’s Kaku and Atlanta United manager Tata Martino, who said after the match that things between him and the Red Bulls midfielder were “all good.”
However, the players largely kept their heads, and referee Kevin Stott issued just one yellow card and no red cards. Guzan said he was happy to see the referee let things go at times.
“This is playoff soccer, you don’t want to go into these games tiptoeing around tackles,” he said. “He let us play and he let things go both ways.”