In the rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final, the New York Red Bulls repeated its second leg result when it won, 1-0, over defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United FC at home on Sunday night.
The hero role fell to forward Tom Barlow in only his second ever MLS match, as the St. Louis native headed in the winning goal past Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan while his team was down a man.
“Feels great to win at home in the fashion that we did,” Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas said in his post-game press conference. “It’s great to see out guys commit the way that they did… I’m really proud of the guys, the guys that started the game, the guys that came into the game, the guys at halftime that weren’t even playing supporting each other. It was a really great win.”
The announced crowd of 18,495 was treated to a well-paced game as both of 2018s rebounding powerhouses looked to keep the pace on the table. Atlanta came into the match-winning six of its last seven including five straight clean sheets and an undefeated record on the road this year in Major League Soccer. New York, on the other hand, had won three of its last four, including a 3-2 win of the best of the west LA Galaxy, and had the better record against United when it came to league play.
The Bulls had to contend with the defending MLS Champions without an eleventh man for just under 2/3rds of the game following a Tim Parker challenge in the 35th minute. Leading scorer for United Josef Martinez, who broke the record for the most goals scored in a single MLS season last year, looked to have a chance at Robles on a breakaway before he was brought down by Parker just outside the penalty area. The official ruled that Parker had pulled down Martinez on an open break which by definition is a straight red card.
During halftime, Armas and his team reviewed video and discussed game plans that would best suit a 10 versus 11 situation. For a team that he claimed has always had a positive attitude even during the rough early stretch of 2019, the mindset was always leaving with three points.
“When we win the ball there’s still time to play,” Armas explained. “We didn’t want to just hang on, we didn’t. We went at it to, technically, make some adjustments but there was a discussion ‘when we win the ball and how can we score.’ It was going to take courage and take some guys having calm.”
The man with the most courage turned out to be Barlow, eleven days after being officially signed from Red Bulls II and only making his second appearance in an MLS game as a second-half sub. Ten minutes after coming on for Brian White, Daniel Royer found Barlow in front of the net on the left side. The young player seemed all-alone, as if Atlanta assumed he would be off-side, and headed down what may be the slowest trickling ball in the history of MLS. Guzan ran towards the ball as it crossed the goal line at the far side as his team looked stunned.
Atlanta United out-shot the home side 13 to 6 over the 90 minutes, with midfielder Héctor Villalba getting four, but in terms of shots on target both stayed level at two each. The Bulls got the first look on goal in the game when Marc Rzatkowski, not long removed from his tying goal against LA Galaxy earlier this month, nearly scored his second of the season when he slammed a shot from the top of the box off the crossbar in the third minute.
The pace of the match early on saw the ball go the full length of the field in each direction. Both teams maintained possession and made deep strides while both teams had great chances. In the 29th minute, RBNY’s Amro Tarek made a critical sliding block against an Atlanta breakaway to keep the chance away from Luis Robles and the score level at zero.
As the 90 minutes of regulation finished out, Kemar Lawrence and Héctor “Tito” Villalba clashed one last time before the final whistle as the Jamaican taunted the United player following a hard challenge. The two engaged in some chest-to-chest banter that brought both teams into a group, which included Red Bulls goalkeeping coach Preston Burpo and Guzan needing to be physically separated.
These two teams, which have only played each other for two seasons coming into 2019, feel like Major League Soccer’s next great rivalry. All their games have been on national TV, the story-lines of one out-doing the other are always present, the young vs the old and countless other cliches have all made their presence known. New York continues to have the advantage when it comes to overall, head-to-head record, but, as United’s Villalba reminded RBNY fans after the game, Atlanta has the star on their kits.
Atlanta and New York will meet in Georgia on July 7. The Bulls have little time to rest though as they return to the field this Wednesday to face the Vancouver Whitecaps at home.