The game will be played at a sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of 75,000 rabid fans.
It was the latest of what has been a number of big-game failures by the Red Bulls, which includes last year’s U.S. Open Cup final, the Concacaf Champions League semifinals earlier this year and well as the 2015 Eastern Conference finals.
Sure, every game is different and, in the Red Bulls case, the personnel has changed significantly. But is there a common denominator in the biggest of moments?
The immediate suspect is the club’s pressing and counter-pressing style. That it doesn’t lend itself to success in playoffs or Cup-competition.
The players, though, scoff at that idea. If a system is good enough to set a league-record for points accrued in a season — as was the case this year — and be a big reason why the club has won three Supporters’ Shield titles in the last six years — why wouldn’t that be effective in the postseason?
Plus, as head coach Chris Armas said, that system isn’t changing anytime soon.
“The identity stays the same, but we have to evolve, we have to innovate,” he said. “We have to look to get better.”
So why have the Red Bulls come up short in the season’s biggest moments?
It was a question posed to a number of Red Bulls players in the club’s end-of-season media availability at Red Bull Arena on Monday.
“It’s hard to put your finger on anything. I know that we’re close,” forward Bradley Wright-Phillips said. “Even saying this now, its annoying me because it seems like it’s every year. But we are. We’re obviously close. … In all those games we lacked a little quality when we needed it, I think up front. I don’t think we had enough guile and creativity. I think we suffered from that.”
That certainly seemed to be the case in the second leg against Chivas Guadalajara and Atlanta United at Red Bull Arena, where the Red Bulls played the game on the front foot, maintained possession, but the high quality chances were lacking and were unable to overcome first-leg deficits.
“We talked a lot about trying to break down a bunker at times like we had to do in both playoff series. And it just comes from the group having a little bit more of an edge,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “And I think that’s something that we have to take a hard look at in the offseason to figure out as a team how we can get over that last hurdle, but it’s obviously important to us and something that we’re looking at closely.”
An Atlanta United win in MLS Cup would mean two things for the Red Bulls: It would clinch a berth in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League and mean for the second time this season, the Red Bulls lost to the eventual champion in the semifinals.
“That stings a little bit,” goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “But on the flip side of it, it shows that we’re getting to very important places of competition, we’re in very big moments. As long as I’m breathing and playing for this organization and wearing that jersey, I’m going to do everything I can to help us get to the next part of where I’m not saying we lost in the semifinal, we lost to the eventual champion, but that we are the champions.”