Atlanta United took a big step toward hosting MLS Cup, beating the New York Red Bulls 3-0 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final on Sunday.
In front of more than 70,000 at Mercedes Benz Stadium, the hosts received goals from Josef Martinez (32nd minute), Franco Escobar (71st) and Tito Villalba (95th), while benefiting from a VAR decision in between the first two that wiped an apparent Red Bulls goal off the board to seize control of their series. It could’ve been even worse, with Villalba hitting the post as stoppage time hit, but as it stands, Atlanta takes its commanding three-goal edge into the away leg.
The Red Bulls will host that second leg Thursday night at Red Bull Arena, knowing that a 3-0 win would force extra time and a 4-0 win would seal their place in MLS Cup. It’s already a tall mountain to climb, but any away goal would effectively end a series that is already heavily tilted in the favor of the Five Stripes.
Here are three thoughts on their one-sided first leg:
ATLANTA TAKES CARE OF BUSINESS
From even before the match, this was all about business for Atlanta. Its capacity crowd turned out with a killer pregame tifo, setting the stage for what the players did on the field.
Tata Martino’s side showed little in the way of nerves and plenty in the way of confidence, despite the Red Bulls having their number during their two regular-season matchups. This time around, Atlanta took the match to New York, which was without injured starting left back Kemar Lawrence. The opening goal didn’t come off any majestic sequence, though. It was actually just rather uncharacteristically sloppy defending from a unit that was the best in MLS all season long. Jeff Larentowicz’s cross sailed over Tim Parker to Martinez, who settled and fired home. The goal was his 34th across both the regular season and playoffs–a new record (breaking Roy Lassiter’s 33 from the league’s inaugural 1996 season).
The other two goals were more characteristic of Atlanta’s beautiful attack. Miguel Almiron slipped a perfect through ball to Julian Gressel, whose cross was dummied by Martinez and found Escobar, whose finish was lethal.
And after hitting the post minutes earlier, Villalba was given the luxury of space to shoot, and he curled home a low dagger, likely putting the series out of reach–and at the very least requiring a historic comeback and perfect performance from the Red Bulls in the second leg.
A multi-goal lead, no away goals conceded and no disciplinary problems to take heading north? Consider the job done for Atlanta.
RED BULLS LOSE THEIR WAY
The typically pressing, aggressive Red Bulls were rather passive Sunday night, which represented a change in their usual tactics.
Instead of pressing high, the Red Bulls opted to stay compact and withdrawn, teasing Atlanta, which featured there in the back, to come forward while waiting for the opportunity to break out on the counter. Atlanta happily moved forward with possession and did so wisely, never really allowing the Red Bulls to break free. If this was a calculated decision by manager Chris Armas, to go against what worked so well and so often all year, it severely backfired.
On the other end, the Red Bulls conceded just 33 goals in 34 regular-season games, yet they were punished for sloppy defending and an inability to close out the match with focus. Villalba’s goal, in the fifth minute of stoppage time, should never have been permitted, yet the Argentine substitute had plenty of time to line up a long-range blast. Going home down 2-0, while clearly not ideal, would have been a manageable deficit. Having to battle back from 3-0, with no away goals and knowing that the league’s most potent team is one away goal from requiring you to score five, seems like a task too tall for a franchise plagued by coming up short in the playoffs.
VAR A KEY COMPONENT OF THE RESULT
Atlanta was the better team on the night and has its deserved result, but the match and outlook for the series could have been very, very different if not for the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee.
A few minutes into the second half, it appeared as if the Red Bulls had the away goal they craved. Down 1-0, completely against the run of play and off a well-worked set piece–something the Red Bulls are known for–Bradley Wright-Phillips wound up with an apparent equalizer by beating Brad Guzan on a precise shot from 14 yards out.
A second look, though, revealed that Alex Muyl, in an offside position, was in Guzan’s line of sight as Wright-Phillips fired home.
By the law, that’s a good call by the VAR official and head referee Kevin Stott, though if Muyl wasn’t there, would Guzan have made the save? It’s tough to say, but the replay didn’t exactly show his reaction to be a delayed one on the rapid-fire shot. It’s a call that drastically changed the tone of the match and the series. Say Atlanta wound up with the other two goals it scored. Had the Red Bulls lost 3-1, a realistically achievable 2-0 win would’ve been enough to go through. Instead, the Red Bulls had to overcome the psychological shift of thinking it had equalized and found its away goal only to have it wiped off the board. Less than 20 minutes later, Escobar doubled the lead, and the series was changed for good.