Harrison, N.J. — Atlanta United punched its ticket to, errm, Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a beautifully ugly 0-1 result in Red Bull Arena to win the tie on aggregate 3-1. The team will look to lift its first MLS Cup in club history on home soil Saturday, Dec. 8.
Josef Martinez nearly broke the tie open in the game’s opening moments when he was played through for a one-on-one opportunity against New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, but was denied.
Atlanta defended superbly for most of the half, doing what was required to stop a Red Bulls team that had more energy going forward than it had in the first leg. Brad Guzan was eager to sweep behind his defenders and clean up balls intended for Bradley Wright-Phillips, Daniel Royer and Kaku.
The only thing on target in the first half was a beer cup thrown by a Red Bulls fan in the 22nd minute that hit Miguel Almiron in the head as he prepared to take a corner kick.
Red Bulls nearly turned their fortune shortly after halftime in the 52nd minute when Alex Muyl nearly scored at the back post, but it glanced just wide.
Chris Armas threw everything he had at Atlanta in the second half with additional forwards, but to no avail. Aaron Long thought he’d gotten Red Bulls on the scoreboard late in the game when he headed the ball out of Brad Guzan’s hands, but it was rightly disallowed.
Tim Parker did eventually get the lone goal for Red Bulls in the series in stoppage time when he tapped in a bouncing ball in the box, but it was nothing but window dressing as Atlanta United were lifting a conference championship trophy just minutes later.
“We approached each game great,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said after the match. “We understood that we needed to win the fight first and foremost against the Red Bulls. We knew we had to win second balls. At home, we knew we’d attack a little bit more, and we took our opportunities when they came and scored goals.”
As far as Parkhurst is concerned, Atlanta did exactly the job they expected of themselves in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals, despite losing the leg at the end of 90 minutes.
“Coming here, we were always going to be a bit more defensive,” Parkhurst told reporters after the match. “You try to play the game like it’s 0-0, but you look up at the scoreboard and you see on aggregate it’s 3-0. We knew we were going to have to defend and have to weather some storms, and we did that tonight. Everyone from top to bottom did their work defensively. I’m really proud of the group.”
Parkhurst took a knock toward the end of the game when he collided with his center back mate Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. The Argentine center back delivered a man of the match performance in every respect. Physically, he was rock solid and as a leader, Gonzalez Pirez was there to keep the team organized and sharp in defense.
“Leandro just won every tackle asked of him today, both on the ground and in the air,” said Parkhurst. “All playoffs, he’s been like that. He’s been the best defender in the league in the playoffs and for much of the second half of the season as well.”
Parkhurst smiled and added, “I like playing with him.”
And they will get one more game together, this time for a chance to lift a real cup — MLS Cup — next week. Can this Atlanta United team vanquish the demons that have seemingly cursed the city of Atlanta for decades? Has this team staved off the patina of cynicism that surrounds the city’s other sports teams?
We’re about to find out.