Sean Davis: “No, I don’t see us as favorites at all actually. I think at this point we just have to turn the page and reset. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Entering the first leg of their Eastern Conference series Sunday, the Red Bulls have Atlanta United’s number.
That would be two, as in the number of goals they have conceded to the second-year expansion team in four meetings since 2017. That has translated to an impressive 3-0-1 mark against their rivals from Georgia.
In fact, as Supporters Shield winners the Red Bulls are considered favorites against Atlanta, having secured more points during the regular season (71 to 69).
Of course, the Red Bulls’ domination of Atlanta can be thrown out the window in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Heck, even the Red Bulls will remind you of that fact quite quickly.
“No, I don’t see us as favorites at all actually,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “It’s the playoffs, we know how talented Atlanta is. They are a fantastic group and I think at this point we just have to turn the page and reset. I think that is the mentality that we’ve had throughout training these last couple of weeks and I think that is something we have to stick to.”
The Red Bulls’ dominance started in Atlanta’s very first game — at Bobby Dodd Stadium — March 5, 2017, a 2-1 victory. Trailing 1-0, Daniel Royer headed home a Sacha Kljestan corner kick to equalize in teh76th minute before a ball deflected off Anton Walkes for an own goal in the 82nd minute for a 2-1 triumph.
The teams played to a scoreless draw at Red Bull Arena Oct. 15, 2017.
On May 20, the Red Bulls registered a 3-1 home win before blanking Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 2-0, Sept. 30.
Striker Josef Martinez, who led the league with a record 31 goals this season, has never scored against the Red Bulls. There are no ways to look at his personal drought. He cannot find a way to break the backline or he is overdue for a goal celebration.
“It’s the playoffs so the context surrounding it is so different,” captain and goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “When you look at the other two matchups, it’s another game in the season. Of course, there is going to be a buildup to it but not like the playoffs. If there is any sort of dynamic that those previous matchups can bring into this, it’s that they want to avenge those losses. That they want to right the ship in the sense that they want to get rid of that goose egg and that only builds more pressure for us.”
Regardless of the Red Bulls’ domination, Robles has much respect for Atlanta, calling the side “a very fast, talented team.”
“They have a lot of quality up and down the line up whether you want to start in the back from their goalkeeper in defense all the way up to the two guys who have been, really, the brightest stars in this league all year,” he added. “So, we have a lot of respect for not only that team but especially those two guys. A lot of our success is going to be our ability to shut down Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron.”
Given the Red Bulls success against United and the way the team has played down the stretch, don’t expect head coach Chris Armas to change his approach to the game.
“The approach is what it has been all along in the last feels like 10 games of the season felt like playoff game, it felt like we couldn’t slip up, and that’s what it feels like now as we have been preparing for a few months now not letting play slip and then the one game at a time mentality,” he said. “Without getting too ahead of ourselves for Leg 2 we know we have a tough challenge ahead of us to go to Atlanta. It is one game at a time and we are getting ourselves ready.”
The second leg is set for RBA Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET.