HARRISON, N.J. – Atlanta United’s penalty area was as crowded as the highways that crisscross around the metamorphosing town of Harrison, where the New York Red Bulls needed a profound balance of offensive explosiveness and defensive discipline on Thursday night to overturn a three-goal deficit.
It could be said that Atlanta United midfielder – and possible MLS MVP – Miguel Almiron’s injury during the October regular season stretch run ceded the Supporters’ Shield to New York. It could also be said that video review helped the Red Bulls earn three wins from late April to May, including one in the same Mercedes-Benz Stadium they lost in on Sunday, 3-0.
In this much-anticipated Eastern Conference Final, it was the Red Bulls who suffered a crippling injury through Kemar Lawrence, as both those factors which helped earn the Red and White a Supporters’ Shield swung back around and knocked them out of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
There was no postgame grilling of players or head coach Chris Armas after the match, and some might have a problem with that. But, what is there to be outraged about specific to Thursday, when the Red Bulls were unable to score three and keep a clean sheet, against a defensive block of nine that was comprised of the second greatest regular season team of all-time?
The series was lost on Sunday, when at the worst possible time, the two traits that were supposed to set New York apart this postseason failed them: defense and road form.
Chris Armas’ passive tactics should be questioned, but it is probably a stretch to declare that his choice to sit back set the team up for failure. If Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal in the first leg stands, and the aggregate is even at 1-1, Thursday’s second leg is far different, even if Atlanta goes on to get a second and third.
Without even the away goal, though, the offensive pursuit for New York was close to hopeless. Pass after pass toward Wright-Phillips was jabbed away by the Atlanta brigade in front of United goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who did his part by wasting precious seconds whenever he picked up the ball.
The Red Bulls’ prolific striker, whose best skill may be finding space, found no chink in the Five Stripe armor. A year that will be remembered for a 100th MLS goal, 200th career goal and subsequent jersey number retirement ends with Wright-Phillips scoreless in six matches. Curiously, he was nowhere to be found when media entered the locker room after the match. His time to address the loss will come on Monday, in the team’s end-of-year media session.
There may not be a player on the roster – or possibly a member within the entire organization – who will take the loss harder than Wright-Phillips. He is admittedly a person who reads comments and shakes his head at the trite trash talk that is thrown in the direction of Red Bulls fans.
He and Robles, the two heavy-hearted veterans, burn inside to be the ones that help bring a championship to the Red Bulls. After the Supporters’ Shield-clinching win against Orlando City on Oct. 28, Robles interrupted Wright-Phillips presser and leaned into the scrum of reporters.
“Hey Brad, how many Shields was there before we got here,” Robles joked.
Wright-Phillips smiled bashfully. “You’re going to make me sound arrogant,” he eventually answered. “I’m a captain so I have to answer, zero.”
“ZERO,” Robles shouted at about the same time. “What are we at now?”
“Somewhere like three,” Wright-Phillips said with a wry smile.
“And we have another hand, so we’ve got to keep going,” Robles said before sitting down at his locker, which is situated next to Wright-Phillips’.
After the Red Bulls’ 2017 playoff elimination, in Toronto, Robles spoke with his glassy eyes about the club’s future, and how he, then out of contract, hoped to be a part of it. He soon re-signed and was later named captain after Sacha Kljestan was dealt to Orlando.
After Thursday’s elimination, perhaps Wright-Phillips, who will be 34-years-old next March and whose contract has only one year remaining, fears he missed out on his last great chance to capture the elusive Cup for New York.
That much is unlikely, however, since regardless of their roster makeup, tactical philosophy or salary budget, the Red Bulls have found a way to reach the playoffs every season since moving to their 25,000-seat soccer-specific-stadium in 2010.
In the eight years since, the area around the arena has gradually been gentrified with cleaner streets, new businesses and – just this fall – a state-of-the-art PATH station.
It is a change as stark as the message from the club. What was once, ‘Come and see the stars of yesterday’ – names such as Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill – is now, ‘Come and see the stars of tomorrow’ – the likes of Tyler Adams and Aaron Long.
Red Bulls fans have even gotten the invitation to MLS Cup at Red Bull Arena – a dream for the 23-year-old club – but the message, like this fall, has always been redacted in short order.
This can provoke the kind of pessimism that causes fans and observers to lose sight of a record-setting 71 points over the course of the regular season. But, as Robles said in his pre-game speech prior to the Red Bulls’ second leg turnaround against Columbus Crew SC, “71 was not a mistake.”
In the face of that pessimism – none of which is fair to direct at players and front office personnel who are nowhere near responsible for the collective 23 years without an MLS Cup – the unwaveringly positive Armas might be the perfect man to lead the team forward.
“[The playoff loss] just makes us hungrier,” Armas said. “It’s going to come, that’s the mentality. I will never be a person or a coach to think about, ‘Wow, we lost, we lost.’ For me, we’ve won a lot since we’ve been here, major success.
“And with the club and the organization, (Sporting Director) Denis [Hamlett], what they’re building, the academy, USL – it’s incredible. It’s not talked about, but it’s incredible.”
For those who doubt him, the pressing system and the youth-tailored philosophy, this off-season and 2019 will determine whether the club, as currently constructed, is built to last. Midfield marauder Tyler Adams is almost certainly gone, and other important players may follow.
But if the answer to the above question is “Yes,” Red Bulls fans might be invited to Harrison for another MLS Cup Final in 2019. And maybe then, finally, the invitation will stand the test of time.