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Red Bulls finish MLS’s best-ever regular season exactly how they wanted

New York savors its third Supporters’ Shield after Atlanta freezes on Decision Day.

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls
Left to right: Aaron Long, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Connor Lade, Andreas Ivan and Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra stand in front of the “2018 Supporters’ Shield Champions” sign.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

HARRISON, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls had a mission to accomplish on Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, but that was only one part of a Supporters’ Shield love triangle.

To capture a third regular season championship in six seasons, first-year head coach Chris Armas and his team needed Toronto FC – who after finishing with a record-breaking 69 points last campaign will miss this year’s postseason – to steal two or three points from Atlanta United at BMO Field in Toronto.

The league’s shiny new club from the Southeast, with a free-spending owner, a sparkling stadium, an esteemed Argentine manager and marquee players, entered Sunday with the best road record in MLS: 10-4-2. And yet, this new club, in its second year of existence, had never been in such a spot: a win-or-else scenario, with the title of “greatest regular season ever” on the line.

The team that eliminated New York last season – the one that set the 69-point bar that both the Red Bulls and United were in position to reach entering Sunday – made sure no champagne doused the floor of the visiting locker room at BMO Field.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC
Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar buries his head after Lucas Janson’s second goal, in the 83rd minute, that gave Toronto FC a 3-1 lead.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

An overcast sky darkened the late afternoon scene at kickoff in Harrison. During the week, Armas had been surprisingly content with his team’s prospects entering ‘Decision Day.’

“We don’t mind being the ones right on their tail,” the Red Bulls’ head coach said at training on Friday. “We like the spot we’re in. And…if we could reverse the roles, I wouldn’t. I’d rather have to win the game at home, and then, let them have to go on the road and figure that out.”

Both matches kicked off at around 4:45 p.m. EST. About nine minutes into the match at Red Bull Arena, something divine happened: the sun peaked through the clouds, onto the 2013 and 2015 Supporters’ Shield banners.

One minute later, Toronto FC scored to take a 1-0 lead, and the sun began to further soak the upper tier of midfield seats. Then, a penalty was awarded to the Red Bulls, in the 14th minute. The mood was surreal, and it stayed that way when, of all people, Derrick Etienne Jr. stepped up to take the penalty.

Not Bradley Wright-Phillips, the only player in MLS history to record three 20-goal seasons, and not Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, the central creative engine with a $6.25 million price tag. Instead, Etienne Jr., who acknowledged his own personal struggles earlier in the season.

The spot kick was telegraphed and saved by Orlando City SC goalkeeper Adam Grinwis. Sacha Kljestan, who shared a brief moment with former teammates, coaches and friends in the organization after the match, pointed to where Etienne Jr. ultimately placed the penalty.

“Historically, Derrick…he’s very stubborn, and, always went that way” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said after the match. “And, for the last season, I’ve just been trying to convince him to mix it up. And, obviously, Sacha being on the team last year, he saw like every time Derrick took a penalty.”

The miss darkened the scene, but, one minute later, Wright-Phillips nearly scored with a slashing kick inside the box. The Red Bulls were not fazed by the lost opportunity. Seven minutes later, Toronto FC pushed another goal through and sent shockwaves around the 20,023 in attendance at Red Bull Arena.

No goal materialized for New York in the first 45 minutes, though. And to make matters worse, Wright-Phillips picked up an injury late. The irreplaceable forward received treatment and proceeded to limp around until halftime, a sight that made his return to the field after the break surprising.

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls
Wright-Phillips managed to play into second half stoppage time after having both ankles stepped on late in the first half.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

“I just got stepped on, both [ankles], the right one came off a little worse,” Wright-Phillips lamented after the match. “I’ll wait until tomorrow and see how it feels. Right now, I’m OK.”

“It was really painful in the first half, but I was just trying to get in here to see some physios, see what they thought,” Wright-Phillips later went on to say. “Once I knew that, it’s probably not too serious, then I could carry on. It was still was hurting, but, it didn’t stop us.”

Both teams lined up more than a minute early for the second half, with Armas’ team aware of the volatile result playing out 479 miles away. Gamarra tried his luck from distance and nearly dropped a shot inside the post in the 48th minute. Five minutes later, Etienne Jr. drifted inside with the ball and began his game-winning move.

It started out as a routine pass, but what followed was a purposefully direct dribble, a razor-sharp cut and a finish that, because of the occasion, will not be forgotten. The homegrown winger, who was starting to draw the ire of some fans, became a hero in the regular season’s final hour.

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls
Etienne Jr. completed a tremendous solo effort in the 53rd minute with a finish past Adam Grinwis that gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

“I missed the PK, so I owed the guys a goal,” Etienne Jr. said. “[It’s] something I dreamed of, something I came into today hoping, to get a goal. And I was able to do that, so, it means a lot.”

“The message at halftime was simply, just let it go, forget it,” Robles added. “Everyone in here believes in you, you’re going to get another moment. And, that’s exactly what happened, so, I couldn’t be happier for the guy.”

The player who slid him the ball, Michael Amir Murillo, had been a source of speculation over the summer. The Panamanian outside back, who competed in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, nearly left the league he represented as an all-star on July 31, and the club he celebrated a regular season championship with on Sunday night.

“It just wasn’t my time to be in Europe,” Murillo said through a translator after the match. “I feel good about being here, especially after winning the Supporters’ Shield. So, all I can do is continue to work hard and work toward that goal [of playing overseas].”

As the second half wore on in Harrison, players’ eyes naturally wandered to the two monitors that displayed the score in Toronto. For a moment, it read, “TFC 3, ATL 0,” but a video review correctly spotted Justin Morrow was offside. Then, in the 77th minute, Atlanta United cut the deficit to 2-1.

In a season in which individual and collective boundaries were pushed by New York and Atlanta, the penalty kick goal was Josef Martínez’s 31st of the regular season, four beyond the previous single-season record set by Wright-Phillips, Chris Wondolowski and Roy Lassiter.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC
Josef Martínez hop-stepped and then slotted his penalty to the right of Alex Bono, his 31st and final goal on the season.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

But the atmosphere in Red Bull Arena was already festive when Martínez scored, and before suspense could settle in the air, Toronto added a third goal. The packed and passionate South Ward led the chant “T-F-C,” and the Reds soon added a fourth through Sebastian Giovinco.

Following the confetti on the field and champagne in the locker room, Armas politely dismissed a question about avoiding the trap of previous playoff letdowns. The response was quintessential for the first-year head coach, who has shielded his team from negativity ever since taking over on July 6.

“We’re not thinking of the past,” Armas said. “We’ll learn from the past, we have. We have a fearless group, we have a good team. We are not thinking of repeating the past. This team is focused on what’s ahead, and we continually just trust in the process.”

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls
As confetti flutters through the air, a young fan holds up a sign reading, “The Shield Is Coming Home.”
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

That process helped propel New York to 71 points in 2018, a height never before reached in a single regular season. A four-week sprint that erased a four-point gap with Atlanta culminated precisely how the Red Bulls wanted. Odd as it may have sounded on Friday, the Red Bulls staff and players were content with their situation. And on Sunday night, with the Supporters’ Shield on the banks of Lake Ontario, a Captain America Shield proved suffice.