HANOVER, N.J. — Ask any professional soccer player and you’re likely to get the same stock answer: Their next game is the biggest game. That’s the focus, there’s no looking ahead.
But this one feels different.
Yes, Atlanta United is the New York Red Bulls’ next opponent, but considering the high stakes, that the Supporters’ Shield very well could be decided, Sunday’s showdown at Red Bull Arena between the Eastern Conference foes has MLS Game of the Year written all over it.
“It feels like a big game, for sure, because they are over us in the league,” Red Bulls midfielder Marc Rzatkowski told Pro Soccer USA. “But I think we showed them in the first leg that we also have a really good team and we are excited for the game. For sure we want to win it.”
Atlanta United players have said the pressure is on the Red Bulls, and certainly with the Five Stripes taking a four-point lead into Harrison, the hosts are more desperate for a win than the visitors. But that May 20 road win for the Red Bulls — a 3-1 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — means Atlanta United can get revenge Sunday, plus essentially lock up the Shield and clinch a berth in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League with their league-leading 11th road win of the year.
“We got the better of them at their place, so we know they’re going to come in hungry looking for a result and looking to lock up the Shield,” midfielder Sean Davis told Pro Soccer USA. “There’s a lot on the line, and I think that’s what players play the game for. We look forward to big matchups like this.”
Conversely, the Red Bulls have 12 home wins, two off the league record set by D.C. United in 1998, according to Opta. They would tie that mark with a win over Atlanta this weekend and Orlando City SC on Decision Day.
Red Bulls coach Chris Armas has no problem calling it the “Game of the Year.” That’s because the bigger the game, the better his team plays. They have results against the other five teams in the league with 50 points or more — convincing wins over Atlanta, New York City FC, FC Dallas and LAFC, as well as a 3-2 victory against Sporting Kansas City.
“We’ve known all along where this game lies on our schedule, we were all along hoping it would matter as much as it will,” Armas said. “All year, the team has risen to big games, and in the past it’s been the same — in derby matches or playoff games, Champions League or Open Cup, the team has shown up in big games, especially at home. These are the games I think the players, and we remind them, they sign up for these games.”