Josef Martinez celebrates his first-half goal. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
ATLANTA — The Red Bulls could not have picked a worse time to play their worst game of the season Sunday night.
They find themselves with a deep, deep hole entering the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference final series after suffering a horrendous 3-0 loss to Atlanta United in the first leg of the series at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday.
Goals by Josef Martinez, Franco Escobar and Héctor Villalba lifted the hosts to the win. The second leg is set for Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. Thursday night as New York will need a miracle to reach MLS Cup Dec. 8.
It was one of the most devastating playoff losses in the 23-year history of the franchise. The Red Bulls were defeated by three or more goals in a playoff match for only the second time in club history. Last time the Red Bulls fell 3-0 in a playoff game was at the Chicago First Sept. 26, 2000.
In its previous four meetings, Atlanta had never beaten the Red Bulls, going 0-3-1 and scoring but twice. But that changed dramatically Sunday in the most important meeting to the date between the two rivals.
Head coach Chris Armas’ first-half strategy of laying back and not deploying the Red Bulls’ usual high-pressure game in the midfield has to be questioned as the visitors looked like a team content on trying for a counterattack. That was not how the Red Bulls attacked in their previous two games in the regular season vs. Atlanta.
Asked if anything that Atlanta did surprise the team, goalkeeper Luis Robles replied, “No, they are a good team. They have been good all year. They have been explosive. At home they are amazing. I think, just looking at the way that we gave up the goals, we lacked some discipline. We made it a little too easy for them. When you have a team as talented as them, and yo u make mistakes, they are going to punish you.”
Martinez, who had never found the net against the Red Bulls, finally solved Robles in the 32nd minute as he latched onto a left-wing pass from Jeff Lawrentowicz and drilled a four-year shot into the lower left corner for a 1-0 edge.
The Red Bulls thought they had equalized in the 53rd minute on a Bradley Wright-Phillips goal from 13 yards. However, the play was reviewed by the Video Assistant Referee and the goal was nullified because midfielder Alex Muyl was ruled to have been offside on the play, blocking the view of goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
Atlanta gave itself some important breathing room in the 71st minute when Escobar latched onto a pass from Julian Gressel and powered a 12-yard shot past Robles for a 2-0 advantage.
After smashing a shot off the left post in the 90th minute, Villalba rectified his miss five minutes into stoppage time as he gave the hosts a commanding three-goal lead in the series and sending the Red Bulls back to RBA wondering how they will be able to pull off a miracle Thursday.