As it has done most of the season in putting together the most points on the road (32) in league history in the post-shootout era, Atlanta United proved incredibly difficult to break down on Thursday. The Red Bulls managed just two shots on goal through the first 75 minutes.
New York thought it had scored in the 80th minute when Aaron Long put in a header. The ball was in goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s hands, though, when Long made contact. After a review, referee Jair Marrufo pulled back the goal. The Red Bulls had a goal pulled back in the first leg because of goalkeeper interference.
The Red Bulls finally scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time on a goal by Tim Parker. But it came too late to matter.
Now, Atlanta United will get one last game this season at home.
Atlanta United hasn’t been shy about its goal of competing for trophies. Being an expansion franchise was just a label and not an excuse for a lack of success in the 2017 season.
Atlanta United missed out on hardware last year when it was knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup, the race for the Supporters’ Shield, and then the playoffs in an excruciating shootout loss to Columbus.
The team re-tooled for this season, adding midfielders Darlington Nagbe in among the biggest trades in league history, and Ezequiel Barco, the most expensive transfer in league history.
Still, history looked as if it was going to repeat itself.
Atlanta United was once again knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup in its second game in the tournament. Once a lock to win the Supporters’ Shield, the team was edged in the final game of the regular season by the Red Bulls, who set a league record with 71 points. Twice New York defeated Atlanta United, which didn’t bode well for this series.
But Atlanta United gave itself a chance by steamrolling NYCFC in the semifinals to set up a rematch with the Red Bulls.
Now, Atlanta United has given itself a chance to win the most prestigious title in MLS and will give the city a chance to add to titles won by the Chiefs in the NASL in 1968, the Braves in MLB in 1995 and the Swarm in the Swarm in the NLL in 2017.
From Argentina, from where most of Atlanta United’s coaching staff and several players were signed, to Atlanta, where the team has set numerous league attendance records, the joy was palpable. Watch parties throughout the city posted videos on social media of hundreds to thousands of people watching.
Playing for the MLS Cup will be a reward for the culmination of years of work from when the franchise was introduced on April 6, 2014, to the hiring of Darren Eales as president, Carlos Bocanegra as vice president and Gerardo Martino as manager, to the first announced player signing, Alex Tambakis, who is no longer with the squad, to Thursday's result against the Red Bulls.
“The travelling support we had here in New York to so quickly getting into an MLS Cup final and then to be hosting it in front of 70,000 crazy Atlanta United fans is beyond our wildest dreams,” Eales said. “We’ve still got a huge game in front of us. I’m just hopeful we can put in a good performance. Really pleased for the city that we get to host it.”
The Five Stripes had a chance to end the game in the first 20 seconds when Jeff Larentowicz split the Red Bulls’ lines with a pass to Josef Martinez. Through on goal, he couldn’t get off a clean shot.
The Red Bulls applied pressure but couldn’t crack Atlanta United’s defense.
Things got weird in the 22nd minute when it appeared that Miguel Almiron, as he was preparing to take a corner kick, was hit in the face by something thrown by someone in attendance in that corner of the stadium.
By the end of the first half, Atlanta United’s defense posted 27 clearances, the most in any of its first halves this season.
The Red Bulls came close to putting pressure on Atlanta United in the 51st minute when a cross went past the mouth of Guzan’s goal, just missing the outside post before the ball rolled out of bounds.
Atlanta United’s locker room was euphoric. Hector Villalba carried around the trophy. Puddles of champagne were on the floor. Latin music blared from a speaker as players milled around, talking to reporters or going through things on their phones.
“It’s going to be special,” Jeff Larentowicz said about what he expects next Saturday. “They want it to so much.”