Atlanta United

Why Atlanta United must be bold at New York Red Bulls to have a chance of MLS Cup run

Chris Smith
Atlanta United have never won against the Red Bulls in the regular season.
Atlanta United have never won against the Red Bulls in the regular season. / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United travel to face the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday with a win not quite vital to assure MLS Cup Playoff qualification, but with home field advantage on the line.

The Five Stripes have done brilliantly to drag themselves up the table, winning 10 of their 19 games following the removal of Gabriel Heinze, who won just two of his 13 MLS matches in charge.

But inconsistency, defensive lapses, and some wastefulness up top have caused Atlanta to drop some points that really ought to be in the bank. Gonzalo Pineda and Rob Valentino deserve huge credit for reviving what was very nearly another lost season. But, at this point, given the momentum that was building and the talent Atlanta have, missing out on home advantage - or the Playoffs altogether - would feel like a travesty.

Atlanta United arguably couldn't pick a worse opponent to travel to in their penultimate match than the Red Bulls. Gerhard Struber has performed similar miracles to turn their season around, with seven wins, just one defeat, and six clean sheets dragging them into seventh and above the Playoff line.

But it's not just the Red Bulls' recent form that will leave Atlanta fans looking on nervously. The 0-0 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium back in June means that in nine regular-season meetings between the two sides, the Five Stripes are yet to come out on the winning side. What's more, across all competitions, they've never won at Red Bull Arena and haven't even scored against New York in their last three meetings. There is often more angst toward this fixture from the 17s than their closer rivals - geographically, at least - Orlando City.

So, just how much does Pineda commit to this match? After all, Atlanta United will be in a Playoff spot regardless heading into Decision Day where they travel to FC Cincinnati, who have lost 14 of their last 15 matches and appear to have checked out for the season. Never say never, but in Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno, and Luiz Araujo, Pineda should have enough quality at his disposal to brute-force his way to three points in Ohio.

The real question is how much Pineda values having at least one Playoff match at the Benz. Well, Atlanta's record on the road this year doesn't inspire much confidence, with just three wins from 15 games and only 15 of their 47 points so far coming away from home.

By contrast, the Five Stripes have lost just three games on their own patch. On Saturday during their 1-1 draw with Toronto FC, Atlanta drew a crowd of 42,536 on the same night the Braves played their MLB World Series match just 15 miles away in front of 43,125. Atlanta United fans are loud, immensely committed, and they come out in numbers unmatched in MLS.

The Red Bulls have been a supreme defensive force, but do struggle to break opponents down. The aforementioned attacking quartet has enough to break open Struber's backline and in truth, keeping the ball down the other end may be the best form of defense - you can't be punished for lapses in concentration if play is in the opposition box.

For Atlanta United to be a threat in the post-season, not just a mere footnote in somebody else's run to MLS Cup glory, they must be bold and finally overcome their Red Bull Arena demons.