Atlanta United Finishes Off Red Bulls to Reach M.L.S. Cup

Atlanta United Finishes Off Red Bulls to Reach M.L.S. Cup
Atlanta United Finishes Off Red Bulls to Reach M.L.S. Cup

HARRISON, N.J. — The Red Bulls — so solid in winning Major League Soccer’s regular-season title this year — went out of the playoffs with barely a whimper Thursday night, failing this year to offer their steadfast, shivering fans so much as the usual playoff tease.

A narrow victory in the second leg against Atlanta United meant the Red Bulls, playing at home, lost the Eastern Conference final series, 3-1, on aggregate. Beaten comprehensively in Atlanta on Sunday in the first leg, 3-0, the Red Bulls failed to muster any real challenge in the second, scoring only at the game’s end.

The tactical match was lacking in much suspense, as Atlanta Coach Tata Martino employed a five-man back line and often kept 10 players behind the ball to protect his club’s three-goal cushion. One of the best chances of the night, in fact, fell to Atlanta: The team’s top scorer, Josef Martinez, nearly scored 12 seconds into the game after a deflected pass gave him a breakaway that was foiled by the extended right foot of Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.

Even a late glimmer of hope for the Red Bulls was fleeting. A headed goal by Aaron Long in the 80th minute was overturned by video-assistant review, the second time in the two-leg series the Red Bulls had scored a goal only for it to be erased after a second look. Long’s central defender partner, Tim Parker, did manage to push a goal across deep in injury time, but by then it was far too little and far too late.

While the Red Bulls dominated possession for most of the game, they were unable to penetrate Atlanta’s packed defense through the middle, and their play down the wings was not sharp enough. Well before Long’s goal was negated, the notion of a multigoal outburst appeared far-fetched, at best.

As Red Bulls Coach Chris Armas had warned, “There are no 3-pointers” in soccer. For much of the night, his team appeared most focused and coordinated when complaining about Atlanta’s prevalent stalling tactics.

“Their structure, 5-3-2, we knew they’d look like it, it wasn’t a secret,” Armas said after the game. “In a width of 44 yards, it’s tough for us to attack the spaces. We tried to open up with width, there were a few chances to. They limited our big chances. There’s a fine line in these games.”

It was, yet again, a woeful way for the Red Bulls to end another season. This is the 23rd straight year without a playoff title for this inscrutable, original M.L.S. franchise, which has won the Supporters’ Shield for best record three times in the last six years, under three coaches, yet has failed to reach the Cup final in any of those seasons.

“Yeah, it hurts,” Armas said. “That’s what the emotion is. Our season is over. In time, we’ll feel good about the work that was done. Hosting that final would have been a treat.”

The Red Bulls have played in the league championship game only once, in fact. They lost the 2008 final to the Columbus Crew and have never returned.

The outcome of this conference final had been all but determined four days earlier, in a decisive victory by Atlanta United before 70,016 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta will return there next weekend as host for the M.L.S. Cup against the Portland Timbers, who won, 3-2, at Sporting Kansas City on Thursday to claim the Western Conference title.

The Red Bulls had yielded only two goals to Atlanta in four matches over the previous two seasons, going 3-0-1 in those games. And they had given up only 33 goals in 34 to all opponents during the regular season. But everything fell apart for the visitors on Sunday, starting with some questionable strategy.

The Red Bulls sat back, uncharacteristically, in the first half of that opening game, a tactic that earned them only a one-goal deficit and created sharp criticism of Armas. Then, after a Bradley Wright-Phillips goal was disallowed by V.A.R. early in the second half, the Red Bulls pressed carelessly, losing their composure and their defensive shape. The absence of the injured defender Kemar Lawrence hurt the cause, too, because he had rescued the Red Bulls many times before with his speed and tackling.

All this left the Red Bulls with an almost impossible challenge on Thursday. There had been spectacular turnarounds before in this sport, but no M.L.S. team had managed to reverse a three-goal defeat from the first leg of a playoff series.

“We put ourselves in a hole,” Armas had said after the first-leg defeat.

Climbing out of it proved impossible. Considering weather conditions and the near-hopeless situation, the boisterous crowd of 22,137 in Harrison was strong in number and spirit. The Red Bulls, however, continued to be a study in frustrating contradiction. They are in many ways a model M.L.S. franchise, steadily building a gifted, low-payroll roster through their academy and their minor-league feeder club while excelling during regular seasons with their high-press system.

Then November rolls around, and the club finds a way to come up a goal — or more than one — short.

“This just makes us hungrier,” Armas said. “It’s going to come. I can’t wait to get started again.”

PORTLAND 3, SPORTING K.C. 2 At Kansas City, Diego Valeri scored twice and Portland rode three road goals to victory after a scoreless first leg at home. Portland advanced to M.L.S. Cup for the first time since 2015, when it wonthe title.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B11 of the New York edition with the headline: Red Bulls Win a Leg, but Atlanta Advances to Cup Final. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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