By Justin Sousa
Atlanta United took the driver’s seat of the Eastern Conference Finals with a 3-0 first leg victory over the New York Red Bulls.
Red Bull line-up lost a major piece as an MCL injury during this week’s training meant Kemar Lawrence would miss this match. Connor Lade, who had not started a playoff game since 2012, replaced the Jamaican at left back.
Recognizing this weak point on the left, Atlanta dragged NYRB to right in order to open space to hit long switches to Franco Escobar. The Argentinian effortlessly out paced and out muscled Lade throughout the first half and often forced the full back into needless giveaways.
Atlanta’s breakthrough came in the form of Josef Martinez’s first ever goal against NYRB. Lade’s lack of press left Jeff Larentowicz in acres of space to pick up his head and deliver a perfectly placed crossed. Poor communication and marking from Michael Murillo and Tim Parker allowed Martinez to chest down the cross and blast it past Luis Robles for the opener.
The disparity between Bradley Wright-Phillips and the midfield played a crucial role in Atlanta’s dominance in the first 45. Daniel Royer’s freedom to go forward was restricted by Lade’s inability to deal with his defensive responsibilities as well.
Eric Remedi and Greg Garza did well to congest the Red Bulls’ passing lanes to Kaku. Even when the Paraguayan found time and space on the ball, he lacked outlets from his supporting cast. Wright-Phillips was out of sync with his midfield, and Chris Armas’ passive approach to the first half meant there was little forward progression from Sean Davis or Tyler Adams.
Parker also had his fair share of mistakes in the first half. He seemed a step behind his back line’s movement when the ball switched to the left flank. His hesitancy meant more space opened for Miguel Almiron or Darlington Nagbe to receive a pass and terrorize the defense further.
The Red Bulls thought they had clawed back an equalizer after Long knocked down a free kick for Wright-Phillips to tuck away on the volley. Upon video review, however, the goal was called off for Muyl obstructing Brad Guzan’s vision from an offside position.
Momentum shifted in favor of the Red Bulls, but Atlanta struck the net for a second time through Escobar. Julian Gressel latched onto a through ball from Almiron and pulled a pass back for Escobar to slam into the top corner of the net.
Hector Villalba sealed the victory for Atlanta with a well struck shot from outside the box that left Robles rooted to his spot on the line.
The second leg of the Eastern Conference Final is set for a 7:30 PM kickoff at Red Bull Arena on Thursday, November 29.
Man of the Match
Julian Gressel was once again the X factor of Atlanta United in midfield, pulling the strings and connecting front to back with ease. Tata Martino’s utility man assisted the killer second goal for Atlanta and continued to thread passes to his forwards when the Red Bulls pushed for a goal.