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Three Thoughts: Atlanta United clobbers New York Red Bulls in first leg of 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Final

RBNY picked a very inconvenient moment to lose to Atlanta for the first time.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

There were high hopes for the New York Red Bulls in MLS Cup this season: the league’s Best Team Ever after a 71-point regular season; a painful memory emphatically avenged in the team’s first round of the playoffs - it seemed 2018 might finally, finally be the year the Red Bulls put a long and varied history of post-season disappointments behind them.

That Atlanta United - MLS’ Best Second-Best Team Ever - stood between RBNY and the Cup Final seemed only appropriate. This year’s Red Bulls needed no favors. To be the best, you must beat the best - and RBNY had beaten Atlanta twice already this season. Atlanta was not an opponent to be feared, more a challenge to be relished.

So RBNY was expected to walk into Mercedes-Benz Stadium without anxiety. The Red Bulls had every reason to be confident: they had the necessary results - unbeaten against Atlanta in all four of the teams’ regular-season meetings - and they had RalfBall. RBNY’s decision (or obligation - we don’t exactly know who decided the club would reorganize itself around the ideals of RB Leipzig’s “sporty engine” Ralf Rangnick) to switch to a defined style of play was in large part a decision to play without fear.

Since 2015, the Red Bulls have been wed to an aggressive, high-speed, high-pressing style that they deploy pretty much regardless of opponent or circumstance. The Red Bulls play the way the Red Bulls play, the rest of the league has to figure out how to deal with it. This year, most days, the rest of the league couldn’t deal with it.

In 2018, the no-fear RalfBalling Red Bulls enjoyed the greatest validation of their preferred methods yet: a record-setting regular-season that delivered their third Supporters’ Shield since 2013, and their second in the four years of the RalfBall era to date. Next stop, MLS Cup.

Or not. RBNY’s bandwagon came to an abrupt halt in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final. The team didn’t just lose to Atlanta, it was trounced, 3-0. It didn’t just get trounced, its signature style of play was most remarkable by its absence.

Those statistics are damning for a team that wants to play the way Red Bulls want to play. Possession and pass completion stats don’t mean a great deal to RBNY. What matters most is trapping play in the final third and scoring goals. The Red Bulls didn’t get much of anything started in the final third, and they finished nothing at all. (Nothing that made a lasting impact on the scoresheet, at least.)

At the other end, they were undone by three moments that illustrated Atlanta’s abundant attacking gifts.

In the 32nd minute, Jeff Larentowicz got time and space to launch a well-directed cross into the box - and Josef Martinez’s movement and composure did the rest.

Trailing 1-0 at half-time, the Red Bulls were not vanquished. They came out for the second half with a little more pep in their step, and Bradley Wright-Phillips had the ball in the net in the 53rd minute. But referee Kevin Stott got a whisper from VAR and called the goal back for (Alex Muyl’s) offside.

Things got worse for the Red Bulls in the 72nd minute, when Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel tortured the back line and Franco Escobar was teed up for a magnificent finish.

Hope springs eternal and the Red Bulls might have grudgingly accepted a 2-0 deficit to take back to Red Bull Arena for the second leg. But Tito Villalba made Atlanta the prohibitive favorite to advance to MLS Cup from this series in the fifth minute of stoppage time. RBNY can’t say it wasn’t warned: Villalba sliced through the back-line and pinged a shot off the post in the 90th minute, before recalibrating to find the net the next time he got a look at goal.

The series isn’t over, but to get to the MLS Cup Final, the Best Team Ever will need to produce a performance for the ages in the second leg at Red Bull Arena on November 29. RBNY needs to put at least three past an Atlanta side that knows all it has to do is not lose by three goals or more (and scoring just once will give Atlanta the winning advantage of an away goal if aggregate scores are tied at 90 minutes).

It will be an improbable and remarkable comeback if the Red Bulls make it happen. A comeback worthy of MLS’ Best Team Ever, but perhaps not worth the investment of too much of fans’ hope and certainly none of their expectation.

Atlanta was pipped to the 2018 Supporters’ Shield on the last day of the regular season not because RBNY beat Orlando City 1-0 - that was pretty much expected - but because the Five Stripes contrived to lose 4-1 in Toronto. They’d win through to MLS Cup on away goals if they suffer the same result on November 29. The task of overturning Atlanta is so great for RBNY that even the ghost of the Five Stripes’ costliest meltdown isn’t much help.

The Best Team Ever needs its Best Playoff Win Ever to salvage its post-season, and it has just four days to shrug off this defeat and summon the mental and physical fortitude required for the big win it needs.

While we wait to see if RBNY can make everything go right at Red Bull Arena, here are three thoughts on what went wrong in Atlanta:

Kemar Lawrence was maybe one injury too many

It is not at all uncommon for the Red Bulls to keep an injury in the squad to themselves until they absolutely have to reveal it. So while it was a surprise to learn Kemar “Taxi” Lawrence was not in the match-day 18 due to a training-ground injury, it wasn’t all that surprising that news wasn’t made public until about it just an hour before kick-off when RBNY released its lineup.

Lawrence is a key part of RBNY’s first-choice starting XI. Forget about whether or not he is the best left-back in MLS; he has been in the conversation for best left-back in CONCACAF since 2015 - when he was the best left-back at Copa America.

His particular set of skills are almost uniquely well-suited to RalfBall’s requirements for a full-back: exceptional stamina to be reliably present at both ends of the field; explosive acceleration to match the pace of just about any player in the league; elite recovery speed to stifle counter-attacks when the Red Bulls’ press misfires; preternatural anticipation to consistently read the game in a way that makes it appear he knows where an opponent will put the ball before that opponent has decided what he wants to do.

The Red Bulls are not at their best without Kemar Lawrence. This made his absence a cause for concern. As Atlanta made RBNY look steadily more ordinary, that concern grew ever greater. By the final whistle, Lawrence’s perceived value to his team had grown from “key” to “indispensable”.

It was reasonable to expect RBNY to miss Kemar Lawrence. It was not at all expected that the team would be incapable of functioning at anything close to its usual level. Taxi is important, but the Red Bulls are not infrequently without him: he has his share of minor injuries during the season, and he is regularly called for national-team duty by Jamaica. The 28 league appearances Lawrence made for RBNY this year are the most he’s been able to give the team in a single season since he signed.

It’s not true to say the Red Bulls are lost without Lawrence. Worse off, certainly, but not usually completely separated from their overall playing style and tactical identity.

There is no like-for-like replacement for Lawrence in the squad, but Connor Lade has emerged as a reliable back-up. Indeed, he started in Lawrence’s stead against Atlanta in a 0-0 draw at Red Bull Arena last season, and he subbed in for a seriously injured Lawrence for the closing 20 minutes or so (there was a lot of injury time) of RBNY’s 3-1 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this year.

Further, the Red Bulls pride themselves on their squad depth and ability to eke out results even when key players are missing - and this season they’ve found the results to back that up. Consider the two regular-season games against Atlanta alone: in that 3-1 road win in May, Ryan Meara started in goal, and both Lawrence and Tyler Adams had to leave the game with injuries; in September, RBNY beat the Five Stripes, 2-0, without a minute from either Adams or Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Contrary to the impression given by their imperious march to the Shield, the Red Bulls have been dealing with setbacks all season. The team’s vaunted depth has been strip-mined by injury. Ben Mines scored RBNY’s first goal of the season and never got back on the field for the first team. Vincent Bezecourt emerged as a solid midfield depth option, but never adequately recovered from a knee injury sustained in June. Florian Valot forced his way into the starting lineup, but tore his left ACL in July. Attacking depth became such a concern that the Red Bulls allowed Anatole Abang back into their training ground for the first time in almost two years.

On the defensive end, Kyle Duncan came out of pre-season looking like a starter-in-waiting at right-back, and was shut down by the beginning of April. Tommy Redding’s season ended in August (to be fair, it hadn’t really ever started); Aurelien Collin was sidelined before the playoffs began.

And, of course, the team was forced into a change at head coach in mid-season when RB Leipzig came calling for Jesse Marsch.

Throw in an unprecedented interruption to Luis Robles’ availability, and regular national-team call-ups for multiple players - including World Cup duty for Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar: it is remarkable that RBNY’s response to the near-constant disruptions to its season was a record-breaking, Shield-winning year.

It’s disappointing that the latest disruption was the one RBNY most needed to overcome and the one it proved least able to cope with on the day. All teams deal with injuries and absences, but most don’t respond with their best-ever season. The Red Bulls have managed this year better than they have ever managed any year before in their history, but when injury and absence are constant, at some point they were likely to cost the team something it couldn’t afford to lose. Unfortunately, that thing proved to be the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final.

We had best hope Chris Armas made a mistake

Kemar Lawrence’s absence doesn’t adequately explain the apparent disappearance of the Red Bulls’ tactical identity. It can partially explain it - Connor Lade isn’t Kemar, and adjustments surely had to be made - but it’s simply not the case that the entire system hinges on the availability of one left-back.

The Red Bulls weren’t a little less aggressive or effective; they stopped being what they want to be entirely. That stat from TruMedia Networks’ Paul Carr again:

Not a single possession started in the attacking third. Not one.

The Red Bulls like to talk a lot about “putting the game on our terms”, which is shorthand for dictating the tempo and controlling the areas on the pitch where the game is played. As noted by Charles Boehm for mlssoccer.com, the team simply didn’t seem interested in those terms from the kick-off.

A perceived feature of Chris Armas’ approach to coaching RBNY is a willingness to start games a little slower, even indulge a seemingly possession-based style from time to time. As demonstrated by results, it has mostly appeared to be to his team’s benefit.

So one can’t entirely attribute RBNY’s departure from its core playing style to Kemar Lawrence’s absence because one does also have to account for the fact that Armas has seemed comfortable with asking his team to start slow and gradually ratchet up the intensity. Indeed, at least one observer has the view that the Red Bulls’ would have played the way they played regardless of who started at left-back.

There was little sign of the Red Bulls’ usual high line and high press throughout the game. We assume this was by choice because the team is defined by its commitment to playing its way regardless of circumstance, and because the Lade-for-Lawrence swap would inevitably have required a concession to the fact Connor is not Kemar.

Post-match, Luis Robles seemed to support the notion that RBNY’s tactical plan simply hadn’t worked out on the night:

They really got the better of us. We came here with a plan and looking at the result we failed to execute our plan.

That plan, best we can tell, was to sit back and absorb pressure from the top-scoring team in the league playing in front of the largest home crowd in MLS. And presumably, switch on the high press at some point when Atlanta was not expecting it and grab hold of the game.

And that is Chris Armas’ best option for describing what happened in this match: he thought RBNY could get away with giving Atlanta control of the game for a while; once they had it, the Five Stripes never let the Red Bulls take it back.

It isn’t a great idea to have to admit to: “Yes, I thought our team could stop doing what it is good at and let our patched-up back line absorb pressure from the highest-scoring team in MLS.”

But the alternative is worse. The alternative is this performance wasn’t a choice, it was a reaction: Atlanta figured out how to break RBNY’s press and keep it broken. That is an idea that doesn’t bear thinking about for too long. It’s a lot more comforting to believe Armas got carried away with the bluff and double-bluff of how to approach a specific opponent and sent his team down a tactical cul-de-sac, that RBNY let Atlanta play to its strengths.

Otherwise, we have to accept that Atlanta just figured the Red Bulls out. That Atlanta has applied its own skills and strengths to an approach to the game that doesn’t allow RBNY to be RBNY. That Atlanta is just that much better than RBNY right now.

Such a conclusion doesn’t leave any room for the idea the Red Bulls can get close to tilting this series back their way at Red Bull Arena. Better for this result to be symptomatic of something RBNY can control: a mistake. A mistake can be fixed. A mis-match can only be endured.

It’s absolutely fine to be mad about BWP’s goal being called back

There would a much more positive feeling about this game if Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal had not been called back after a VAR consult. Even if RBNY had still ended up conceding three to Atlanta, it would have an away goal as consolation: insurance against the Five Stripes getting one at Red Bull Arena while the Red Bulls are focused on trying to score as many as they can at the other end.

But it was not to be. The goal didn’t stand. Alex Muyl was offside (no debate), and deemed to be actively offside in the play because he was obstructing Brad Guzan’s line of sight (some debate).

That is indeed a rule.

But it is a rule that rarely gets enforced in MLS. Don’t take my word for it, take mlssoccer.com analyst Bobby Warshaw’s:

Since it is his job and that of his colleagues to have debates, there was, of course, a debate.

And even the suggestion that precedent itself was not the issue because...well, because it’s the playoffs and people are watching, basically:

If those arguments are good enough for you, fair enough. Alex Muyl was offside. He was standing in front of Brad Guzan. BWP’s shot did skim past Muyl at an angle that perhaps screened the ball from the ‘keeper’s sight until it was too late to react. That all adds up to a correct decision to call the goal back.

There’s no need for further persuasion, just take the very first argument in favor of the call: Muyl is offside and in the ‘keeper’s line of sight. There is certainly no need to go hunting for “precedent” if the only example is one where Josef Martinez is virtually standing on Sean Johnson.

It’s an odd argument that seeks to suggest a player standing eight yards away from a goalkeeper is as much impacting a play as one standing eight inches away. The standard for VAR intervention is to correct a “clear and obvious error” by the on-field referees - and Martinez was very much more clearly and obviously obstructing Johnson than Muyl was Guzan.

Indeed, if one were to search for a precedent more closely matching the circumstances Muyl found himself in, one might stumble upon that time Mike Magee faked out Luis Robles from about the same distance and was officially deemed “too far away” to be interfering with the ‘keeper.

Or you might recall the time Toronto FC positioned a player almost exactly where Muyl was standing for the specific purpose of screening the ‘keeper.

That goal was allowed to stand too. And justified by reference to the letter of the law. Until FIFA intervened to tell referees to be more sensible and suddenly PRO reversed its position.

You might reason that debatable calls are rarely debatable because they cannot be shown to be in accordance with the rules of the game, but more because they appear to be in violation of the intention of those rules, or flouting convention with regard to the application of those rules.

You might reason that literal readings of the rule book almost always seem to crop up in defense of bizarre or unusual refereeing decisions. You might decide precedent is important largely because it speaks to what players regard as normal and governs their behavior on the field - like whether or not they should step up with the last defender when a teammate is shooting at goal and they’re in an offside position.

You might also remember the time this season when BWP was arguably screening FC Dallas ‘keeper Jesse Gonzalez, and the play was visible from the same camera angle and there was no talk of VAR having its hands tied - and a lot of chat about whether the infraction was indeed clear or obvious. The goal was allowed to stand.

You might also start to think that the “it’s playoffs” line is another specious argument deployed to quiet debate. That some people will take positions they would not normally take simply to defend the playoffs against the charge of being too easily influenced by one blown call. Or that some simply align with whatever the referee decided because they sleep easier believing referees to be infallible.

You might see if you could find an example of radically different refereeing standards in the same playoff game and between the playoffs and the regular season. You might alight upon a game from the 2014 playoffs, when BWP got a yellow for waving his foot in the general direction of Bobby Shuttleworth and Jermaine Jones’ two-footed scissor tackle on Dax McCarty was deemed...also a yellow.

You might remember that a few seasons later, in league play, Jones was suspended for much the same sort of tackle. You might also remember Yura Movsisyan was thought to have done nothing wrong at all when he imitated BWP’s incursion on a ‘keeper’s personal space.

You might conclude that the only thing special about the playoffs is the league’s need for them to be special, which inspires all sorts of defensive posturing when a blown call tilts a game or series - because otherwise one would have to admit that the impact of a dubious decision or two is more readily muted over 34 games of a regular season than over two legs of a Conference Final. And if one admits that, it becomes a little harder to hype an MLS Cup winner for being equal to the awesome pressure of the playoffs rather than the beneficiary of a game-changing 50/50 call by the referee.

And you might conclude that when all is said and done, debatable calls are debatable calls, there will arguments for and against, and if you want to be against - that is absolutely fine.