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Redemption song: Kemar Lawrence earns revenge for Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United

After missing the Eastern Conference finals with an MCL injury, the Jamaican international helped lead the Red Bulls over Atlanta, and was the center of post-match fireworks with Hector Villalba.

HARRISON, N.J. — While tensions boiled over after the final whistle of the New York Red Bulls1-0 win over Atlanta United Sunday, Kemar Lawrence said he came into the MLS Cup playoff rematch with plenty of pent up anger.

“I’ve been carrying around a lot of anger because I got injured last year and I missed out on one of the biggest games ever for my team — conference final,” Lawrence said.

“I had the worst offseason last year knowing I was injured, knowing I couldn’t help my team,” he added. “The only thing I could do is text the guys or try to motivate guys. So getting back from injury and facing these guys when I’m getting really at my full fitness level, it was just amazing. And the only thing on my mind was to repay them for how my team felt last year. And I felt like we did that tonight.”

Lawrence believes had he been healthy last November, the playoff series between the two, won by Atlanta 3-1 on aggregate, would have had a different result.

“I can tell you to be honest, they haven’t beaten us with me in the lineup. That I know for sure,” Lawrence said. “It’s been personal. It’s personal with every team in the league. When you look at it, when you play the best teams in the league, you want your best players on the field. And you want those players to be their best on that day. And I feel like with the help of God, with the help my teammates, I just live for big games. That’s just me. Any team that’s on the top of their form, I just live to play against their wingers and their best players. That’s just been me.”

The winger who Lawrence had in his crosshairs Sunday was Hector Villalba, a battle that ended up going beyond 90 minutes. Villalba “said something nasty” when Lawrence was delayed in getting up after a diving headed clearance late in regulation.

Lawrence then stood over the Argentine and screamed after coming in hard for a challenge in stoppage time.

That led to more barbs post-game, with Villalba gesturing that he was lifting up MLS Cup, while Lawrence moved his arms like he was rocking a baby before the two bumped chests. Villalba continued to gesture to the crowd as he was escorted off the field by security.

“He was doing some stuff afterwards that, I don’t know, in my opinion is a bit immature,” Robles said. “Like when you’re the champion, there’s got to be a class to the way you conduct yourself and some of the things he was doing didn’t really represent the class that I think Atlanta are.”

Lawrence’s antics, similarly, didn’t go over well in the visitors locker room.

“We were upset with how Lawrence stood over ‘Tito’ at the end of the game and barked at him,” defender Michael Parkhurst said. “Just don’t think there’s a need for that.”

Lawrence laughed at the notion he didn’t show Villalba the proper respect.

“Lack of respect? No, honestly, I can tell you what I said,” Lawrence said. “I said ‘Bring your best.’ I said ‘Come on, bring your best. I see you bring your best against every guy week in and week out, I want your best.’ That’s what I said. So if he feels like that’s disrespectful, that’s his problem.”

Even back at the Red Bulls’ annual Media Day in late February, Lawrence said he couldn’t wait to face Atlanta for the first time. Now he knows the return leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 7 is going to be special.

“I feel like when we go back to Atlanta, it’s not going to be nice,” Lawrence said while laughing. “I feel like this is on the top of the list. I feel like there’s really a rivalry there. And you know when we go there because of the way their fans respond to everything and try to raise the level of noise in the stadium.”

When former teammates collide

It’s safe to say Preston Burpo and Brad Guzan aren’t going to be going to any Chivas USA reunions together anytime soon.

Just when it appeared calmer heads prevailed, the post-match dust-up flared up again with the former teammates being physically restrained from getting at each other.

“I loved it. I dapped him up afterwards,” Luis Robles said. “He is a loyal guy. And he has everyone’s back. and they were teammates, I’m sure they’re friends as well. But Preston doesn’t back down from anyone and, and when I saw it from afar, I was ready to have his back as well.”

Birth of a rivalry?

It is said that in sports to truly have a rivalry, teams need to meet in the postseason because that’s generally were animosity truly bubbles to the surface.

If that’s the key ingredient, it would appear the Red Bulls and Atlanta United are well on their way, especially after the post-match skirmish.

“There’s huge intensity,” Danny Royer said. “Of course, we didn’t forget what happened last season. But I thought the games were always tough, but fair. At the end of this game, it  got a little hectic, a little dramatic, but yeah, I think that might be a rivalry that’s developing.”

Robles, though, downplayed it, at least placing it a distant third to the club’s already established rivalries.

“There’s been some battles because we’ve been good, they’ve been good. And whatever, two successful teams go against one another, you’re going to get a great match,” Robles said. “And also the style of play, it makes for a great viewing experience. So they’re fun. At the end of the day they have what we want, so we’re still chasing them. But the DC rivalry is fantastic. There’s a different energy in the crowd. And then New York City is awesome. For me. That’s that’s our top rivalry.”

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