Are nine matches enough to constitute a true “rivalry” between clubs? You bet!
Red Bulls opened the 2020 MLS Is Back tournament with a 1-0 victory over Eastern Conference foes Atlanta United on Saturday night in Orlando. New York midfielder Florian Valot scored the only goal of the contest just four minutes into the match. Valot – who missed the previous two seasons with back-to-back ACL tears – was played in behind the defense by a well-placed through ball served up from Alejandro “Kaku” Romero. Kaku’s pass split United’s center-backs and left Valot one-vs-one with goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
RBNY controlled the game early on as Atlanta United struggled to break the Red Bulls high press. United head coach Frank de Boer made some substitutions shortly after half-time, bringing on Ezequiel Barco and Emerson Hyndman which opened up the match a bit for the Five Stripes. Atlanta had several chances to equalize in the second half, most notably Barco’s attempt that missed wide left in the 74th minute and Adam Jahn’s headed attempt in the 97th minute, seconds before the final whistle.
With the win, New York extended its regular-season unbeaten streak vs. Atlanta United, now six wins and two draws. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like much of a rivalry, does it? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to explain the origins of contention between the two clubs.
If you ask both fan bases, this budding MLS rivalry began on September 30, 2018, during a critical regular season match-up with major title implications. At the time, only four points separated the two clubs in the standings and it was clear that the Supporters Shield race would come down to the wire. Red Bulls defeated Atlanta 2-0, cutting their point’s deficit to one with three matches remaining. Atlanta’s 4-1 loss to Toronto FC on the final matchday of the season proved to be the final nail in their coffin. New York went on to win their final three matches and lifted the Supporters Shield trophy while setting multiple MLS records (most points , most wins ) in the process.
Tough way to go out, but Atlanta would have the last laugh come playoff time.
Atlanta’s lone win in the rivalry over New York came on November 25, 2018, when the Five Stripes defeated RBNY 3-0 at Mercedes Benz Arena in the first leg of the MLS Cup Eastern Conference finals. Atlanta lost the second leg 1-0 at RB Arena but advanced 3-1 on aggregate scoring. Atlanta United then defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 in the MLS Cup Final and was crowned Champions for 2018.
Fast forward to the 2019 MLS season where both New York and Atlanta had bad tastes in their mouth’s from the previous year. Red Bulls, the reigning Supporters Shield champions were embarrassed by that playoff loss to Atlanta. Alternately, United won MLS Cup, but couldn’t help feeling like they let Red Bulls rip the Supporters Shield from their grasp.
The rivalry continued to build and came to a head on May 19, 2019, when Kemar Lawrence & Tito Villalba had a heated exchange which led to benches clearing and players having to be restrained by coaching staff. Towards the end of the match, Lawrence & Villalba collided while going after a 50/50 ball which resulted in a tense chest-to-chest stand-off between the two. During the altercation, Lawrence cradled his arms, rocking them back & forth – insinuating that Villalba was acting like a baby. Villalba then one-upped Lawrence by lifting both arms over his head, as if he were hoisting up a trophy – a reference to Atlanta knocking New York out of the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs.
¡TERRIBLE MOMENTO EN LA MLS! Kemar Lawrence, del New York Red Bulls, festejó en la cara de Tito Villalba un cruce, le hizo un picante gesto y el argentino explotó de la furia: nadie podía pararlo. 😡🔥 pic.twitter.com/u0xl42jgLf
— SportsCenter (@SC_ESPN) May 21, 2019
After the match, it was clear that there was no love lost between the two Eastern Conference foes, with players trading barbs in the media. The teams met again in July and played to a dramatic 3-3 draw which included: an Atlanta United penalty kick, stoppage-time goals from Josef Martinez, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and a Jeff Larentowicz red card, adding more fuel to fire.
In the past, Major League Soccer has been criticized by fans for trying to “manufacture” rivalries – i.e. Atlanta vs. Orlando City or San Jose vs. Chivas USA. However, the RBNY vs. ATLUTD rivalry has grown organically on and off the pitch. This one feels real. The matches are intense, the players don’t like each other and the supporter groups constantly banter on twitter. The animosity is genuine and MLS has definitely taken notice.
Is it a coincidence that both clubs were placed in Group E of the MLS Is Back tournament & paired up in the first match after the restart? I think not. This was a calculated decision by Commissioner Don Garber to make sure the league pushes this rivalry and maximizes TV ratings. MLS has done the same thing in Group C with Toronto FC vs. Montreal & Group F with LAFC vs. LA Galaxy.
Geographic rivalries are a good marketing ploy for Derby Week. However, most of them feel forced and a bit nuisance or dull. The league should continue to foster more organic rivalries like New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United; rooted in genuine bad blood between the clubs and grown on the field rather than in an MLS board room.