MLS’s top two teams, the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United, collide Sunday with the Supporters’ Shield on the line.
The MLS playoffs are fast approaching. With just four games remaining in the regular season, two teams have separated themselves from the pack in the race for the Supporters’ Shield: New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United. New York sit second in MLS on 59 points, four behind league-leading Atlanta, who have 63 points.
They’ll meet in Harrison, New Jersey, this Sunday. The teams will meet for just the fourth time ever, with Atlanta still awaiting their first victory against the Red Bulls. A win for the visitors would give them a seven-point cushion with three games left, all but sealing the Shield and the franchise’s first trophy. A win for the Red Bulls wouldn’t see them overtake the Five Stripes, but it would add a whole extra level of intrigue to the last three games of the season.
If they are to win, they’ll have to do it without their leading goalscorer, Bradley Wright-Phillips, who’s suspended for yellow card accumulation. Second in the league with 19 goals, his absence leaves head coach Chris Armas with a big decision to make: Who leads the line?
“It’s unfortunate that in this game, of this magnitude, that he’ll have to miss that,” Armas said. “It hurts for us and for Brad, because he lives for those games. We see whether it is a Derby match, or big games, how he shows up and what he means to our team in every way so, we’ll honor him on the day and push for him too, but look, we like our roster. We have said it. We think Derrick [Etienne, Jr.] is dangerous, we have Brian White, we have [Anatole] Abang, we have plenty of guys that can fill in, that we have a lot of confidence in.”
The favorite to replace Wright-Phillips is Etienne Jr., who scored in last Saturday’s 2-0 win over Toronto FC. The Haitian international is speedy, tricky on the ball and will cause problems for Atlanta’s backline. But there’s a trickle-down effect: In the absence of Wright-Phillips, players such as Kaku and Danny Royer will be relied on heavily.
The last time these two teams met, the Red Bulls came from a goal down to win 3-1 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. A lot has happened since that game in May.
In that game, Kaku bagged two assists while Royer scored a first-half penalty. Wright-Phillips sealed the game with a second-half brace. It remains New York’s biggest away result this season and will serve as a check against any complacency on the part of Atlanta.
“We had a great match with Atlanta earlier this year, it was back-forth at times, we obviously edged them out,” Armas said. “We have a lot of respect for Atlanta, they have a lot of weapons, they are coached well, but we are going to look to be the aggressors. We will make them earn everything that they get on the day.”
Atlanta have been amazing this season. They’re led by Josef Martinez, whose 30 goals are a single-season record and will win him the Golden Boot. The Venezuelan is supported by Miguel Almiron, Julian Gressel and Ezequiel Barco. Almiron and Gressel, along with Kaku, are tied with 14 assists each, second in MLS. There’s no shortage of attacking flair in this game.
Win or lose, Atlanta will stay atop the standings. “Kind of a big one, but I think the pressure is on them,” Gressel said following Saturday’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake. “We’re ahead and we’re No. 1 and we’ll stay there no matter what the outcome is of that game. So we have a nice and calm week to prepare and get ready. Why not go there and win and kind of make it really tough for them?”
Both teams will set up in a 4-2-3-1. Atlanta head coach Gerardo Martino already knows the danger the Red Bulls pose and is expecting a fierce battle. “Yeah, we might have a hand on it,” said Martino with a laugh, “but the Red Bulls want to cut that hand off.”
Despite the early kickoff (1 p.m. ET), Red Bull Arena will be rocking with a playoff atmosphere. The hosts have won the Supporters’ Shield on two occasions, in 2013 and 2015. A third this decade would be quite the accomplishment.
“We’ve won it twice, and for me, I thought it was a huge accomplishment, personally,” said Luis Robles. “Of course, MLS Cup is always going to be the top one, but when you look at your season, you can at least point to that, you had sustained success throughout the season, and you like to think you had a good team. Now of course for our organization, the talking point is always MLS Cup, and we feel really confident that this is the year for us.”
It’s first against second, with the Shield up for grabs. This is, all things considered, one of the biggest regular season games in MLS history.
“I’m expecting the best,” Lawrence said. “This is what we live for. I just want their best, simple as that. Bring everything you got from Atlanta and bring it to New York, bring it to New Jersey, and we will be up for the challenge. We’ll be ready.”