Tata Martino’s squad has stormed through the Major League Soccer season on two principles: possession and cutting edge. The playoffs are a completely different animal.
Atlanta United conceded 70% possession to New York and had just four shots on target, but the defense was on hand to hold the charged Supporters’ Shield winners at bay, earning a spot in the MLS Cup finals despite a 1-0 draw that gave the visitors to Red Bull Arena a 3-1 aggregate victory. New York struggled to create the multiple chances they needed to get back into the game, the lone goal coming in second-half stoppage time with seconds remaining.
The game’s possession was dominated from start to finish by New York, who knew they needed to score heavily to have a chance. Atlanta was happy to sit back and absorb pressure, and they used every opportunity to milk the clock. The predictable intensity was palpable, as every whistle was heavily contested and every decision argued intently.
Despite the possessional advantage for the hosts, Atlanta had the two most exciting moments of the first half. The first came literally 10 seconds into the match, as sloppy midfield play off the jump saw Julian Gressel stretch to feed Josef Martinez, but the Venezuelan’s weak effort was saved one-on-one by Luis Robles to keep Atlanta from a game-killing strike so early. Robles was required again off another turnover in the 21st minute, diving low to his right to save a Gressel effort from distance.
Atlanta, a possession-heavy team that Tata Martino drills heavily on playing out of the back, changed its mentality and began booting clearances away to preserve the clean sheet. Tyler Adams had a chance for New York, but skied an effort just before the break with Brad Guzan off his line.
After the break, New York had its best chance yet in the 53rd minute as Kaku sent in a cross that reached Alex Muyl but he couldn’t redirect the shot on target. It appeared that had Muyl let it go, Bradley Wright-Phillips would have been on hand for a good opportunity. Somehow, despite the need for a heavy goal tally, the Red Bulls had just one shot on target through the first hour of the match. Finally, it appeared New York had an opener with 10 minutes to go, but a VAR check determined that Aaron Long fouled Brad Guzan as the Atlanta goalkeeper went to catch the ball.
The goal finally came for New York to spoil the clean sheet as Tim Parker picked up the consolation in the 93rd minute, but it would do the hosts no good other than spoiling the clean sheet. Atlanta’s win avenges New York’s Supporters’ Shield win, snatching the top spot on the final day of the season after Atlanta slipped. Atlanta United will host the MLS Cup, with a better regular season finish than either Sporting KC or Portland.