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Atlanta United advances to MLS Cup, beats Red Bulls for Eastern Conference title

HARRISON, N.J. — Fans came with hope that history could be made on a chilly late November night.

No team had ever rebounded from a three-goal deficit in the first leg to win a series. Tonight, they prayed, would be the night.

Instead, the long-suffering New York Red Bulls supporters left bitterly cold and bitterly disappointed after their team’s playoff failure entered a 23rd year following a 3-1 loss on aggregate to Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference finals. The Red Bulls won 1-0 in the second leg Thursday night at Red Bull Arena.

Atlanta will host the MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Dec. 8  at 7:30 p.m. ET against the Western Conference champion Portland Timbers, who beat Sporting Kansas City later in the night, 

“It comes down to making plays,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “Tonight, we win 1-0. We put out every fire that came our way. There’s a few of those that could have went the other way, not a ton of those, but there’s a few. And on the other side of the ball, we make one play and there’s a few of those that we could do more of. If you look at, we lost the series in leg one, we didn’t make enough plays on either end of the field, in the middle of the field. We didn’t.”

The Red Bulls thought the first goal would perhaps put the visitors on their heels. After having an Aaron Long goal called back following video review in the 80th minute, that first goal finally came off the head of Tim Parker — but it wasn’t until the fourth minute of stoppage time. 

Atlanta was smart and pragmatic, defending with nine players throughout, and the Red Bulls had 13 shots — six on frame — and 68.7 percent possession

New York edged Atlanta United in the regular season for a third Supporters’ Shield title in six years, but it was the Five Stripes lifting the Eastern Conference championship trophy Thursday night and who will  host MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Dec. 8.

We knew it was going to be blood or glory for 90 minutes, and we fought for that for the entire 90 minutes,” Atlanta’s Greg Garza said. “It wasn’t a pretty one, playoffs are never pretty, but what definitely matters in playoffs is results.”

Atlanta nearly silenced an emotionally-charged Red Bull Arena just seconds after kickoff, but Robles kicked away a Josef Martinez left-footed shot.

With Atlanta clogging up so much valuable real estate, the Red Bulls were forced to loft balls into the box in an attempt to find Bradley Wright-Phillips. Long did just that in the 20th minute, with Wright-Phillips acting as a decoy while Kaku latched onto the ball and slipped in behind.

But Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez made a recovery run, sliding at the Paraguayan international, who put his shot directly into Brad Guzan.

One minute later, Atlanta nearly capitalized on a turnover in the Red Bulls defensive third, but Luis Robles dived to his right to get a hand on a low attempt by Julian Gressel, parrying it out for a corner kick.

The other half-chance the Red Bulls had in the first half came in the 41st minute, when Guzan collided with Gressel to clear a Kaku service. The ball fell to Tyler Adams, who fired over the crossbar.

“It’s a tough way to go out,” Adams said, though not confirming his likely imminent departure to Europe. “That’s been my focus all season long, to try and win MLS Cup and to fall short is never easy.”

Despite having the majority of possession, the Red Bulls managed just four shots, one on frame, in the opening 45 minutes. Atlanta remarkably had 27 first-half clearances and 57 for the game. 

It was more of the same after halftime. In the 52nd minute, Kaku sent a dangerous ball across the face of goal, but a sliding Alex Muyl was unable to put his shot on target.

In the 69th minute, Danny Royer had the ball at his feet in the box, but the Austrian was always crossing the ball and his service was cleared.

“At the end of the day it’s not a shame to lose against Atlanta,” Royer said. “But I think it was more possible. They’re good, but I don’t think they’re really better than us and I think we just lost the series in Atlanta so that’s really disappointing. I think today we left it all on the field. It’s just when you come here with a 3-0 aggregate [deficit], it’s not easy. if we get a better result in Atlanta, they have to play differently when they come to RBA.”

While the Red Bulls walked off in disappointment, Atlanta celebrated an Eastern Conference title with the knowledge they’ll be hosting MLS Cup next Saturday. 

“It’s tough to describe,” Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst said. “It’s been a long season, it’s been a great season. We fought hard, man. It’s a fantastic Red Bull team. I’ve said it before, the best team in MLS history. We played as best as we could against them over two legs. That’s really tough to do. Really proud of the boys and I think we’ve got one more big fight left in us.”

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