One game at a time.
Chris Armas used that mantra to help propel the New York Red Bulls to their third Supporter’s Shield in 2018. Now he thinks it will help them climb even higher. Despite the difficult opponent awaiting them in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Red Bulls know they are prepared.
Red Bulls prepared for next step against Atlanta United
“The approach is what it has been all along,” said Armas from the Red Bulls training facility Tuesday. “The last 10 games of the season felt like a playoff game. It felt like we couldn’t slip up, and that’s what it feels like now as we have been preparing for a few months now not letting play slip and then the one game at a time mentality. Without getting too ahead of ourselves for Leg 2 we know we have a tough challenge ahead of us to go to Atlanta. It is one game at a time and we are getting ourselves ready.”
Playoff soccer in MLS is typified by low scorelines and tight matches. Since Armas took over for Jesse Marsch midseason, two-thirds of the Red Bulls wins have been by a single goal. Those tight matches prepared the Red Bulls in real life scenarios that they have carried over to their playoff form. The Red Bulls overcame a first leg deficit to defeat the Columbus Crew SC in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. It was a feat they failed to accomplish under Marsch.
The Five Stripes present a different challenge than the Crew. Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez tore through almost all comers this season, earning the latter the MLS Golden Boot with a record-breaking 31 goals. Slowing down the Five Stripes starts with slowing down their superstars.
“Atlanta is a very fast, talented team,” said Luis Robles from practice. “They have a lot of quality up and down the line up whether you want to start in the back from their goalkeeper in defense all the way up to the two guys who have been, really, the brightest stars in this league all year. So, we have a lot of respect for not only that team but especially those two guys. A lot of our success is going to be our ability to shut down Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron.”
The Red Bulls success against Atlanta United laid a blueprint for how to handle the high-flying Georgia side. The Red Bulls limited the Five Stripes to a nine total shots on goal in their two matches this season. Martinez did not score any of his 31 goals against the Red Bulls defense. Almiron created just three chances against the Supporter’s Shield winners.
The Red Bulls have shown their fearlessness across all competitions in 2018, and it has added a quiet confidence within the group. Championship sides transcend their personnel, relying on a confluence of time and place to achieve the ultimate prize. Are the Red Bulls ready to shake loose their demons and rise as champions?
Sean Davis thinks the Red Bulls are ready to take the next step and bring home the club’s first MLS Cup. The players slowly realized their potential throughout the season to achieve new heights for the club, but the lesson of taking things one game at a time still echoes through the group.
“Yeah, it is a really special group,” said Davis. “I think at the beginning of the year, we spoke a lot about that. I think Jesse and Chris were speaking to us about how much depth this group has and that this was the year that it all really came together. At first the players didn’t quite believe them I think, but throughout the year we have put in so many strong performances.
“I think the staff has done great, the players have done great to show up every single day and improve. Take every game, game by game and that’s been really important and has served us well especially in the playoffs. It has been a really good run so far, we are happy we have the Supporter’s Shield of course, any trophy we can win is great, but MLS Cup is the most important thing now and I think all the guys with the intensity they show up with every day, I think they know what is on the line.”
It all starts with a strong performance this Sunday against Atlanta United. Should the Red Bulls walk away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium victorious, it will only continue to grow the team’s confidence.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography