MLS playoff roundup: Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls to battle for an MLS Cup berth

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Doug McIntyre
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Josef Martinez and Atlanta United are off the the Eastern Conference finals after eliminating New York City FC on Sunday. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Josef Martinez and Atlanta United are off the the Eastern Conference finals after eliminating New York City FC on Sunday. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Atlanta United will face the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City will meet the Portland Timbers in the final four of the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs, the conference finals now confirmed following three decisive matches on Sunday.

Atlanta took their 1-0 first leg advantage home and beat New York City FC 2-1 (3-1 overall) in front of an MLS playoff record 70,526 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In the nightcap, the regular season champion Red Bulls overcame a one-goal deficit against the Columbus Crew, winning 3-0 with the help of Daniel Royer’s two second half goals.

In the West, SKC advanced past Real Salt Lake, taking the series 5-2 on aggregate following a 4-2 victory at Sporting Park. Kansas City will host the second leg against the Timbers, who moved on by topping their chief rival Seattle Sounders on penalties late last week.

Here are three takeaways from the three games.

Red Bulls recover, reclaim status as Cup favorite

New York appeared in significant jeopardy after losing 1-0 in Columbus in the opener. Even up 2-0 Sunday on strikes by Royer and Alex Muyl, the visitors were just one away goal from edging back in front on the tiebreaker. Then Royer scored his second on a brilliant solo effort that Crew keeper Zack Steffen couldn’t stop, giving New York some welcome breathing room:

Not only does the Red Bulls’ convincing triumph restore their status as the prohibitive MLS Cup favorite, it ensures a mouth-watering matchup between the league’s best two regular season (and perhaps most entertaining) teams with a shot at a title on the line.

Almiron and Martinez (who else?) put Atlanta back on track

Atlanta United’s late-season swoon is officially history. The ballyhooed second-year club was MLS’s best for much of the 2018 season before getting leapfrogged by the Red Bulls for the Supporters Shield on the final weekend. That setback came just days after United announced that coach Tata Martino would not return to the sidelines next season.

Somehow, the Five Stripes found their form in time for their postseason opener, beating NYCFC in a slugfest in the Bronx a week ago before putting the Pigeons out of their misery in Sunday’s return leg. Josef Martinez, who set an single season record with 31 goals, converted twice, his twin strikes sandwiching a perfect free kick from midfield maestro Miguel Almiron:

Martinez and Almiron could be sold to European clubs over the winter, but Atlanta fans surely aren’t thinking about that now. With just one more set of games separating them from the Dec. 8 title match, which they would host should they defeat the Red Bulls, they’ve understandably got hardware on the mind. The Red Bulls have the psychological advantage, though, after routing United Sept. 30 without key starters Tyler Adams and Bradley Wright-Phillips. But based on their first two playoff performances so far, few would bet against Atlanta United to win it all.

Sporting tops Salt Lake, but it was closer than it looked

At Sporting Park, Peter Vermes’ side jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on Sunday that, combined with the away goal Kansas City picked up in last week’s 1-1 draw in Utah, seemed to kill the series right there. Then RSL pulled two back in the second half to make it 4-3 on aggregate with about 10 minutes left to play. SKc looked in serious trouble defensively, and had the visitors managed a late equalizer, Mike Petke’s team would’ve taken the series on away goals. The hosts found the backbreaker instead, when Daniel Salloi punished a defensive error and added his second in stoppage time:

SKC will face a sterner test starting on Nov. 25, when it travels for the first leg of a home-and-home against a Timbers team that fancies its chances of repeating its 2015 MLS Cup run after vanquishing their No. 1 foe. After going out in the knockout round in each of the last four years, though, 2013 champ Sporting will surely take it.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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