Bradley Wright-Phillips: “Just a heavyweight clash. I do think that whoever wins that game will win MLS Cup.” (Photo courtesy of MLS)
By Michael Lewis
HARRISON, N.J. — On paper, it’s the Eastern Conference final of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
To many people, it’s really the MLS Cup.
After all, how many times does a conference final in the league’s 23-year history pit the two teams with the highest point totals against one another?
Well, not very often, although the Red Bulls, the Supporters Shield winner, and second-place Atlanta United will tussle in the conference final over the next several weeks.
“Just a heavyweight clash,” Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips said. “I do think that whoever wins that game will win MLS Cup.”
Of course, the Western Conference finalists, Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers might have something to say about that.
The Red Bulls defeated Atlanta twice this season, 3-1 away May 20 and 2-0 at home Sept. 30.
“We’re on a good way, but we’re not champs yet,” said midfielder Daniel Royer, who scored twice in the 3-1 second-leg win over Columbus Crew SC at Red Bull Arena Sunday night. “We feel good, we feel confident. it will be a really good matchup against Atlanta. They’re in a great shape, they’re a great team. But like I said we’re confident and we’re going for it.”
During the expansion team’s first two seasons, Atlanta hasn’t beaten the Red Bulls. In fact, the league’s top goal-scorer this season, Josef Martinez, hasn’t celebrated a goal against New York.
Part of that has been thanks to the tenacious marking from center back Aaron Long and sometimes from Tim Parker.
“They’re such a good team, and they are so possession-based,” Long said. “Trying to limit time and space for them and their great players is going to be tough, but we’ve done it before and we can do it again.”