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

Category: Football,Sports

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 to host M.L.S. Cup, against the survivor of Thursday’s Western Conference final between Portland and Sporting Kansas City.

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 VAR early in the second half, the Red Bulls pressed carelessly, losing their composure and 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.

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