HANOVER, N.J. — Atlanta United comes to Red Bull Arena a team firing on all cylinders. They’re healthy, they’re lethal and on the verge of locking up the Supporters’ Shield race.
They take on a New York Red Bulls side second in the Shield standings, but that will be without leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is serving a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Even though the Red Bulls are 12-2-1 at home this season and already have a win over Atlanta, the visitors are considered fairly sizable favorites with BWP out of the lineup.
That’s just fine with Sean Davis.
“If the talking point is that we’re the underdog, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder all year and we continue to prove ourselves week in and week out and that’s no different for this game,” the Red Bulls midfielder said. “Everyone’s going to be highly motivated, everyone’s excited for this matchup and I think it’s going to bring the best out of our team.”
Of course, the big question leading up to this Sunday showdown is who will carry the torch in Wright-Phillips absence? The forward is a distant second to Josef Martinez in the Golden Boot race with 19 of his team’s 55 goals this season. That’s 34.5 percent of the Red Bulls’ output for BWP, who struck for a brace in a 3-1 win at Atlanta on May 20.
“I could understand [being underdogs] because Brad is such an important guy for us, but I see a lot of guys here in training every day, how they work,” Red Bulls midfielder Marc Rzatkowski said. “I believe in every one of us.”
While Atlanta are lauded for their individual star power in Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Julian Gressel, Hector Villalba and Ezequiel Barco, the Red Bulls have thrived on the collective with arguably the best depth in the league. It was on display early in the season when then-coach Jesse Marsch heavily rotated his squad for league games while making a run to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals.
Armas did it again during a brutal stretch of five games in 15 days most recently, giving Brian White his first MLS start in a midweek home game against the Houston Dynamo with the 22-year-old scoring the game’s lone goal.
“Brad’s a great final play guy and we’re definitely going to miss him out there,” defender Aaron Long said. “Lucky for us, we have a lot of guys who have scored a lot of goals for us this year. We’ll look to other guys to step up in big moments, younger guys, Derrick just had a great goal last game so hopefully he’ll be confident going into the game.”
In that first matchup, the Red Bulls were also underdogs when Luis Robles was forced to miss the game, and end his ironman streak at 183 regular season games, due to a knee injury. But Ryan Meara performed admirably in his first regular season start in six years and the Red Bulls collectively raised their level to win on the road.
Armas is hoping for parallels come Sunday.
“You could certainly compare, you’re missing one of your leaders,” he said. “Last time it’s our captain and Ryan stepped in and did amazing and now its Brad, one of our other leaders we all look to for leadership and the goals he produces, what he actually gives on the field.
“We believe in the guys who can come in and help. We don’t focus on who’s not in. We’re already past that and we’re thinking hard about how we can really challenge Atlanta.”
In addition to the chip the Red Bulls will have on their shoulders, Davis said there’s also major motivation come Sunday. Sure, it’s to reduce Atlanta’s lead to just one in the Supporters’ Shield race, but there’s also a personal reason.
“The team’s ready to fight without Brad. We want to win this game for him,” Davis said. “We know it’s not easy for him to be on the sideline, but it’s a good opportunity for a lot of guys.”