Atlanta United’s potential march to the Supporters’ Shield hit a red roadblock near a city known for its grid lock on Sunday.
Lacking intensity, Atlanta United was beaten by a fired-up New York Red Bulls 2-0 on Sunday at Red Bull Arena in what was supposed to be the game of the season in MLS. Instead, in a game featuring the last two contenders for the Supporters’ Shield, it was New York that easily looked the better, more confident team, using its press to befuddle Atlanta United all over the field in the first half. A penalty kick by Daniel Royer in the 39th minute and a tap-in by Tim Parker in 74th were the goals.
“We played against the most intense team in the league and we knew that if we didn’t match that they were going to control the game,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said.
New York (19-7-5) trails Atlanta United (19-6-6) by one point, 63-62, for the Supporters’ Shield. Each team has three games remaining. Chants of “You can’t beat us” came from New York’s supporters section in the 90th minute as Atlanta United fell to 0-3-1 against New York in the past two seasons.
Because of the loss, Atlanta United needs a combination of nine points – either the Five Stripes earning or the Red Bulls dropping from its remaining three games to clinch the Supporters’ Shield, which would be its first trophy. The team will host New England on Oct. 6 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Chicago on Oct. 21 and will play at Toronto in the regular-season finale on Oct. 28.
“We are point ahead with three games to go,” Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel said. “It’s still in our hands. You have to take the positives from a game like this.”
Within those games, Atlanta United needs to either pick up four points or for Red Bulls to drop four points to clinch a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League tournament, which will start in February.
The circumstances for Atlanta United to play better were there: the team didn’t need to win, it only needed a draw to take any suspense from the final games. The Red Bulls were without their two best players - striker Bradley Wright-Phillips (19 goals) because of yellow card accumulation and midfielder Tyler Adams, who was a late scratch.
Martino said he wanted the team to try get past New York’s first line of midfielders, and then attack the space behind New York’s centerbacks, who were playing a high line.
“We were able to do it on very few occasions,” Martino said.
Even without Wright-Phillips and Adams, New York’s aggressive press forced several mistakes from Atlanta United in the opening minutes, including a missed tackled by Gressel that led to a header that sailed inches wide of Brad Guzan’s goal.
“They were a lot more intense than us,” Gressel said. “We couldn’t control the game like we are used to.”
Gressel and Guzan said there weren’t signs of the team lacking intensity during training this week or before the game.
“We all knew how big of a game this was,” Guzan said. “We all knew what to expect. We didn’t perform.”
The Five Stripes needed almost seven minutes to put together its first attack as the Red Bulls’ press continued to take its toll.
Atlanta United started to grow into the game and came close to taking a lead when Miguel Almiron was sent through by Eric Remedi. But Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles rushed out of his goal and denied Almiron in the 10th minute.
Referee Robert Sibiga called a penalty against Guzan in the 25th minute for taking down Alex Muyl in the box. Guzan appeared to have gotten the ball first before he touched Muyl. After a review, the penalty call was overturned.
New York finally put a ball in the net in the 32nd minute, but the goal by Parker was pulled back for offsides.
The Red Bulls broke through in the 39th minute on a penalty kick by Royer. The penalty came after a handball by Chris McCann, who was trying to defend a corner kick.
The Red Bulls looked out of gas and called off the press in the second half, but Atlanta United still looked nervous. The team misplayed pass after pass and couldn’t consistently find striker Josef Martinez.
The Red Bulls put away in the game in 75th minute on tap-in by Parker. The goal was assisted by Muyl, who got behind Atlanta United’s defense and chipped a pass over Guzan.
The final seconds of the game included New York coach Chris Armas encouraging the crowd, something that Almiron appeared to dislike. The two started to have a conversation. Martino moved to pull away Almiron.
It was one sign of intensity in a day that didn’t have enough of that for Atlanta United.
“We never got started,” Guzan said. “We never got into the game until it was past us. We knew what to expect. We just never got into the game.”