The rivalry has taken twists and turns and may not even be a rivalry anymore, but the New York Red Bulls still seem to love playing in Atlanta.
The Red Bulls extended their unbeaten regular season record against Atlanta United and notched their first road clean sheet of 2021, but couldn’t score themselves as the match ended in a 0-0 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Gerhard Struber’s young lineup survived waves of injuries and yellow cards to escape with a scoreless draw at the league’s most imposing venue.
Struber rolled out his team with a slight adjustment from recent matches where fullback Tom Edwards was deployed as a defensive midfielder - this time Edwards lined up deep as a third center back along with Sean Nealis and Andres Reyes. Only three days after another road fixture on turf against New England, Struber went with a platoon striker setup where Fabio Gomes Netto started on the bench rather than paired from the start with Patryk Klimala, who played instead with pacey-but-clumsy backline stretcher Tom Barlow.
The first half set the game’s choppy tone as frequent fouls and knocks to the floor led to constant stoppages. Rarely were clear chances created by either side as the ball caromed around the turf at Mercedes Benz, though the Red Bulls survived a wave of Atlanta chances late in the half before the whistle at the break.
The second half was marked by a series of substitution decisions by Struber, some of which were forced upon the Austrian. He followed through on his platoon look by switching out Klimala for Fabio while retaining Barlow’s energy up top. The second half proved to be a more open, back-and-forth affair than the first, with Venezuelan midfielder Wiki Carmona particularly impressing on both sides of the ball in his first senior pro start.
The Red Bulls caught a succession of yellow cards (including one given to Struber for sarcastically applauding the referee at one point) as they resorted to frequent fouling to break up Atlanta passing sequences in front of referee Alan Kelly and a hostile road crowd. Despite Atlanta sending a corner kick chance off the post in the game’s closing moments, Gerhard Struber and his team’s pragmatic approach in a difficult situation led to the Red Bulls’ first road point of 2021.
“We expected a tough game and we (got) a tough game from Atlanta,” Struber said about the difficult fixture. “I think you saw a lot of our style against the ball. There were so many in-fights and battles and we win so many of them.”
“I think maybe in the end we lack some of the determination and desire to score. But I could see us create chances and find the right balance in attack. The clean sheet will be good for our confidence going forward and we can hopefully make a big push.”
Struber stated he did not have any further details on the injuries that took Reyes and Edwards out of the game, but did express excitement at seeing so many other players step up in the stressful situation. “We have many young players in different parts of the roster and it’s exciting to see them play brave and with courage. The team we used today is the best under-23 team in America.”
Midfielder Sean Davis went 90 minutes yet again, and the squad captain reiterated his manager’s remarks about the team’s younger players stepping up and showing their maturity in a tough fixture. “I could go around the horn with how many good performances there were today. To come in today, to the toughest environment and rise to the occasion - so many guys stepped up.”
The draw comes on the heels of a difficult early stretch of the 2021 season where the Red Bulls have faced a lack of preseason friendlies followed by a congested early schedule against difficult opponents, but Davis emphasized that such a context has only emboldened the team as they sit just outside playoff positioning heading into a pivotal middle stretch of the season. “There’s no excuses with fixture congestion or having a tough schedule. That’s what we want. Make it as difficult as possible and we’ll rise to the challenge. That’s our mentality.”