Bradley Wright-Phillips’ expression says it all for the Red Bulls. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
HARRISON, N.J. — Few teams can boast the regular-season success of the Red Bulls.
In their 23 Major League Soccer seasons, they have reached the playoffs 19 times.
On the other hand, they still have never won the coveted MLS Cup, which slipped out of their grasp once again.
Their latest disappointment and defeat occurred at Red Bull Arena Nov. 29 as they were held to a frustrating 1-0 win by Atlanta United in the second leg of their Eastern Conference playoff series.
What made this failure all the more excruciating was that the Red Bulls enjoyed a nice second-half surge to the regular season, finishing with a league record 22 wins and 71 points.
Center back Tim Parker scored four minutes into second-half stoppage time to avoid a shutout during a scramble in the penalty area off a corner kick, but it was way too little and way too late. As Atlanta won the series, 3-1.
The real damage was done in the opening leg if this aggregate goals series, losing by a crushing 3-0 result. The Supporters Shield winners entered thecontest needing three goals to equalize the series without conceding one.
They never got close as Atlanta, which finished with the second overall point total, did what it had to do, limiting the Red Bulls’ chances to virtually none on a night in which the home team needed goals.
The Red Bulls came close to hosting their first MLS Cup in the team’s history.
“The emotion is, yeah, it hurts,” head coach Chris Armas said. “We win the series, we host MLS Cup, and we got really close, once again, maybe the closest in terms of hosting that final would have been a treat.”
New York has secured three of the past six Supporters Shields, an astounding achievement. But the squad has failed to win the big prize — MLS Cup.
“It just makes us hungrier,” Armas said. “It’s going to come. That’s the mentality. There’s not — 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, the organization, Denis, what they are building, the academy, it’s incredible. Not talked about, but it’s incredible, the work Jesse did for the year, not talked about. It’s incredible. So we focus on all the good that we do and we get to work every day. We don’t cut corners. We show up early and leave late and keep going for it. It’s coming. It’s coming. Can’t wait to get started again.”
Armas and company will have to wait until preseason training kicks off in January.
Goalkeeper Luis Robles, who earned the shutout, put the game into proper perspective.
“We gave it a go,” he said. “I feel like the guys left it on the field and it’s kind of difficult ending the season on a win, right? But it turns out the first leg was just a little bit too much and we couldn’t overcome that.”
One goal would have given the Red Bulls momentum, but they could never find it. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was never severely tested as United celebrated and then prepared to play the winner of Thursday’s later confrontation between Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Dec 8.
Atlanta used a stifling defense to deny the Red Bulls many serious chances as the visitors closed down passing lanes and blocked shots before their destination.
The second-year expansion team, on the other hand, made the Red Bulls sweat a few times.
With the game only 14 seconds old, Atlanta striker Josef Martinez almost nailed the lid shut on the Red Bulls coffin as he forced Robles to make a point-blank save. That essentially would have put the game away for the visitors with a vital away goal.
“I mean if I was in their position, I would try to do that, right?” Robles said. “Because if you can get an away goal, then it’s five goals and that in of itself is probably insurmountable, but it was a nice little start to the game and when it went our way there was a part of me that thought, ‘Man, maybe tonight is going to work out. Tonight’s going be our night,’ and it was a crazy start of the game.”
Atlanta tested Robles again in the 21st minute as the veteran keeper made a diving one-handed stop on Julian Gressel’s close-range attempt.
The Red Bulls? They had trouble penetrating United’s backline for a decent shot on goal as Tyler Adams attempted the hosts’ first goal in the 20th minute, an effort that sailed well wide right of its intended target.
New York thought it finally struck pay dirt in the 80 minutes when Aaron Long knocked the ball out of the hands of Guzan and into the goal. But after utilizing the Video Assistant Referee, it was ruled no goal by referee Jair Marrufo.
It was the second time this series the Red Bulls had a goal nullified by VAR.
“VAR screws us over again,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “They take another goal away from us. We score one, but fall short.”