MARIETTA, Ga. — From a broad point of view, there’s hardly anything separating the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United in what seems likely to be an epic MLS Eastern Conference Championship. They are the two top teams in the conference and league during the regular season, both of which matched or exceeded the previous regular-season points record set by Toronto FC last season.
A simple glance at the standings doesn’t tell the entire story of just how excellent the Red Bulls have been this season. Having reached the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League tournament in the spring, the Red Bulls remained consistent. When manager Jesse Marsch left to join the coaching staff at RB Leipzig, they remained consistent. And when it came to facing their upcoming playoff opponent, the Red Bulls were consistent — taking the full six points off Atlanta United in the teams’ two regular season matches.
This leaves Atlanta — a team that, again, matched the single season points record, a team with the league’s record-setting goal scorer, and a team with the highest-valued player in the league — as the improbable underdogs heading into the first leg of the series on Sunday, Nov. 25 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (2 pm ET | ESPN, TSN, TVAS).
“I think pressure goes both ways,” Atlanta defender Greg Garza told media Friday. “You’re into the point of the season where, in my opinion, you have the two best teams in the league facing each other in these next two games. For us, we have to be completely concentrated. You’re playing 180 minutes, but you really want to take the advantage in that first game.”
Atlanta will be hoping that the underdog role suits them better than playing against Red Bulls as the favorites this season. Atlanta United most recently traveled to Red Bull Arena on September 30, sitting firmly atop the Eastern Conference standings until losing 2-0 in emphatic fashion.
“The pressure for them is the same amount as us,” said Garza. “I think we were really top contenders to win [the Supporters’ Shield] but we didn’t, and now we have to take a cup away from them.”
But with Atlanta having let the Supporters’ Shield slip from their grasp on Decision Day, team captain Michael Parkhurst said the failure adds that much more motivation to end the season on a high note.
“I think it’s now different than if we had won the Supporters’ Shield,” Parkhurst told media Friday. “If we had won it and then gotten knocked out of the playoffs against New York City, I think we’d probably look back and say ‘hey, that’s a pretty good season.’ But now, I don’t think we can look back and say that until we win a trophy. The goal is to go win it.”