HANOVER, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls got the better of Atlanta United twice during the 2018 regular season, a decisive 2-0 home win critical in helping them overcome the Five Stripes to win a third Supporters’ Shield title in six years.
The MLS Cup Playoffs, though, was a different story. Atlanta bossed the first leg, winning 3-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While the Red Bulls won the second leg, their season ended with a 3-1 aggregate loss, while Atlanta went on to celebrate a first MLS Cup title in front of a record crowd at the Benz.
Are they looking for revenge?
“Anytime you get knocked out of playoffs, you kind of take a little bit of a chip on your shoulder, so we're going into this game trying to prove a point,” forward Brian White said. “They’re very good team and we just want to beat the best to be the best.”
The Red Bulls, for the most part, are leaving the past in the past. That includes a 2-0-1 all-time record, playoffs included, against the Five Stripes without conceding a goal, as well as last year’s playoff disappointment.
“I think for us it's another important game in the season. It doesn't matter who we play, it’s very important for us to get three points,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “Atlanta’s had a good run of games, we love playing the top teams and it's a great test. That’s how we're looking at it, we're not thinking about the past.”
Added Kaku: “We’re more focused on the game. Obviously revenge could be on our mind, but we’re more focused on playing our game and doing what we need to do. We play them pretty well every time we’ve faced them, especially at Red Bull Arena. It’s more continuing what we’ve done before and just go out there that day.”
But that doesn’t mean the Red Bulls don’t learn from the past. In the tactical chess match between the teams a year ago, New York smothered Atlanta with their patented high press, making it difficult for Tata Martino’s side to build from the back.
Martino flipped the script in the postseason, opting to play long out of the back to bypass that pressure. The Red Bulls, in the first leg, opted not to press high, a decision that led to criticism of coach Chris Armas.
He defended his decision in the immediate aftermath, after the season concluded, during the preseason and again on Friday.
“We think we know ourselves and where we're strong, where we sometimes can have gaps and holes. Understanding yourself is really important and then understanding what the opposition is doing, you don't want to ignore that,” Armas said. “So if you know a team is just playing direct or 25-30 percent long balls on a day, what do you do about that? Do you just keep pressing? Does that make sense to get stretched?
“It was 1-0 in the 70th minute in that game. But at the same time, the first goal we gave up we didn't have pressure on the ball, we didn't deal with the long cross. I thought it was a valuable lesson we learned as players, I think as coaches that tactically on the day, what we would maybe do differently. It usually goes back to being aggressive, which doesn't necessarily mean all out pressing all the time. You can be still aggressive, while being compact and organized as to not get stretched against good teams.”