Red Bulls Stuck in Neutral as Playoffs Loom

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

Red Bulls logoHARRISON, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls had little — besides professional pride — to play for at Red Bull Arena on Sunday night.

They are locked in to the No. 6 seeding for the Major League Soccer postseason and must wait another week to find out their opponent for one of two play-in games in the conference.

They faced a bunch of guys — O.K., expansion Atlanta United — dressed in old MetroStars jerseys, the precursor to the club’s current incarnation. And though both teams played well and tenaciously, neither New York (13-12-8, 47) nor Atlanta (15-9-9, 54) could find the final touch as the game ended in a scoreless draw.

As for the tenacious part, for Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch, Atlanta’s display was a bit over the line. In fact Marsch called out United and its coach, Gerardo Martino, by name after the match.

“I though we played better and dominated in nearly every aspect,” Marsch said. “Once we cranked things up I think we dominated the game.”

But. …

“It was a shame they decided they wanted to kick us every time,” he said. “And they kept doing it because the ref [Alan Kelly] doesn’t want to hand out any yellows. Their bench was yelling for them to kick us. Martino was yelling, in Spanish, for them to kick our players. I understand they’re a good team and the darlings of the league right now, but you can’t come into our place, behave in that manner and have no recourse.”

Wha boy.

With the Red Bulls locked in at No. 6 in the conference, the day’s other results brought no clarity to the postseason situation, for the Red Bulls and anyone one else but Toronto (which has clinched the Supporters’ Shield and the No. 1 seeding). In the play-in game, New York could face any of four teams — New York City FC, Chicago, Atlanta or Columbus — depending on the outcome of the final weekend of matches in the regular season.

The Red Bulls play a — for them — meaningless game at D.C. United next Sunday in what is being billed as the final soccer game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Asked if he plans to rest some players ahead of the playoffs, Marsch smiled and said: “I think you can expect us to rest some players, yes. We’ll make sure that we are sharp and fit ready to push in playoffs and try to use whatever turnaround turnaround time we have for a midweek so that the team is ready to fly.”

Over their last nine games, the Red Bulls are a modest, to say the least, 1-2-6.

The game opened with a flourish. Atlanta came close in the sixth minute on a quick combination starting with Julian Gressel to Héctor Villalba on the right for a cross to Yami Asah that forced goalkeeper Luis Robles to sprawl to tip a shot wide. Two minutes later, Sacha Kljestan‘s cross flashed across the goalmouth and was headed wide by Michael Murillo.

The first half ended in a flurry in injury time as Kljestan picked up a loose ball 25 yards from goal and one-timed a left-footed shot that beat goalkeeper Brad Guzan before smacking off the far post and bounding away. Atlanta broke right back on the counter with Asad leading Villalba for a shot with the outside of his left food that spun past Robles and the far post.

Gonzalo Verón entered the match in the 70th minute, replacing Bradley Wright-Phillips and made an instant impact. In the 73rd,  Tyler Adams was fouled on left flank. Kljestan’s free kick found Verón’s head for a shot that fell to the feel to Guzan. Two minutes later, Verón latched onto a cross for one-time shot right at Guzan. In stoppage time, the Argentine designated player’s left-footed shot skittered just wide of the far post.

“He’s accepted his role, it’s not that he can’t start, but I like the way he plays in that role when he comes in and defense is tired,” Marsch said. “But that doesn’t preclude him from starting. It’s a little bit the matchups and how we think he can be effective from beginning. He’s been great coming off the bench no doubt. In all ways I’m really happy he’s accepted role and embraced it and gone after it.”

Notes

The Red Bulls have scored 25 of their 51 goals in the last half hour of matches and have allowed 23 of 46 goals against in the final half hours. … Not surprisingly, Toronto FC leads the league with 23 goals in the final 15 minutes of games. … The game was scheduled to start on Fox Sports 1, but was bumped to Fox Sports 2 because of drag racing. … Next week’s so-called Decision Day regular-season finale at D.C. United in what that club said is its final game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, will kick off at 4:20 p.m. Eastern, not at the 4 p.m. time listed on MLSsoccer.com.