MARIETTA, Ga. — One of the defining images from Atlanta United’s last regular-season game at Red Bull Arena came during the second half, with Atlanta trailing 2-0.
The New York Red Bulls had harassed the Five Stripes all afternoon with relentless energy and high pressing. Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst attempted to shepherd a simple ball out for a throw, only to take the brunt of a challenge that resulted in a throw for New York. It was easy to read Parkhurst’s reaction on the television broadcast: frustration, exhaustion.
The Red Bulls won that Sept. 30 contest to narrow Atlanta’s lead in the Supporters’ Shield race to one point with three games left to play. New York then edged the Five Stripes for Major League Soccer’s regular-season championship on the final match day.
“One of the things about playing at the Red Bulls — we’ve learned lessons there, even late in the season last year — if you’re not ready for the fight, if you’re not ready to put everything out there on the line, they’re just going to come wave after wave after wave, right down your throat,” Parkhurst said Friday at training. “You end up using a ton of energy defending that way, so it’s a challenge, for sure, for guys to get back, feel fresh for this game.”
Atlanta (6-3-2, 20 points) and New York meet again at Red Bull Arena Sunday at 5 p.m. ET. The Five Stripes will be playing their fifth game in 15 days.
“We have to give everything we have in this game, because if you don’t, you’ve basically already lost against the Red Bulls,” Parkhurst said.
Like Atlanta, the Red Bulls (4-5-2, 14 points) experienced a slow start to the 2019 season, and they have been tough to figure out. New York won on the road at Dallas with a heavily rotated squad, and defeated Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Los Angeles Galaxy. On the other hand, the Red Bulls lost to then-manager Brad Friedel’s hapless New England Revolution and dropped home games against Orlando City SC and the Montreal Impact — New York’s first-ever regular-season home loss to Montreal.
New York ranks second in MLS with 32 attempted tackles per game this year. The Red Bulls’ 50 aerial duels per game easily lead the league, out-pacing second-place FC Cincinnati by a full 15 per game. New York still is pressing opponents, forcing them to give away possession with long balls or risk turnovers in dangerous areas by attempting to play through Chris Armas’ team. For a tired Atlanta side that likes to create goal-scoring opportunities through methodical possession, this is a dangerous recipe. The five-game winning and shutout streak will be tested.
“You take that in consideration, for sure, because it would be crazy not to do it,” Atlanta manager Frank de Boer said Friday when asked if the above context would affect his tactics. “You always look to the weakness of the opponent, but also the strength of the opponent. If you are not paying attention to that, then they will punish you for that.”
Atlanta and New York have engaged in some important meetings during their short history against one another. The Red Bulls spoiled the Five Stripes’ inaugural game with a 2-1 comeback win at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2017. After New York swiped the Supporters’ Shield from Atlanta last year, the Five Stripes returned the favor by eliminating the Red Bulls in the 2018 Eastern Conference final on their way to winning MLS Cup.
Brad Guzan would not go as far as saying New York is a personal rival for Atlanta, but: “I would say it’s always been a challenge for us, it’s always been a difficult game, plain and simple. When you face these guys, when you go into these games, you know it’s going to be difficult, and so when you’re able to get a result, it means that much more.”
“You know when you play against them that the intensity is going to be higher, just the way that they play, the way that they press, particularly against us,” Parkhurst added.
“I feel like I’ve seen some of their games, and then you play against them, and I feel like they come hard against us. They press hard. That game that we played out there in the fall last year was probably the most intense team I’ve ever seen press a team that I was playing on. So credit to them for that, but we need to be ready for that type of game from them on the weekend.”
De Boer is new to Atlanta, so he may not have a full appreciation for the Five Stripes’ history with New York. And he agreed with Guzan that, at least from the players’ perspective, this game does not fit the bill as a rivalry matchup with added pressure. However, that mentality is not shared throughout the Atlanta United organization. De Boer left Parkhurst and midfielder Darlington Nagbe at home for the team’s Wednesday game at the Vancouver Whitecaps. Everyone will travel this weekend, and the manager indicated he will select a strong lineup, despite whatever fatigue might be affecting his players.
“I spoke to [vice president and technical director] Carlos [Bocanegra], I think two weeks ago, and we were speaking about the roster for these coming games and everything,” de Boer said with a smile. “I had the feeling that the New York game was an important game.
“Of course, it’s important. Red Bull is all over the world a very respected brand. Everywhere, they put energy into the clubs and they perform well. So we want to beat, of course, those kind of clubs because we want to show that we also do more.”