MLS playoffs: Atlanta United crushes Red Bulls, on verge of hosting record-setting MLS Cup

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Miguel Almiron (from left), <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/383782/" data-ylk="slk:Josef Martinez">Josef Martinez</a>, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/460384/" data-ylk="slk:Greg Garza">Greg Garza</a> and Atlanta United are all but in MLS Cup after beating the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/new-york-red-bulls/" data-ylk="slk:New York Red Bulls">New York Red Bulls</a> 3-0 on Sunday. (Curtis Compton/AP) <span> <br></span>
Miguel Almiron (from left), Josef Martinez, Greg Garza and Atlanta United are all but in MLS Cup after beating the New York Red Bulls 3-0 on Sunday. (Curtis Compton/AP)

Atlanta United all but punched its ticket to next month’s MLS Cup with a dominant 3-0 win over the Supporters Shield-winning New York Red Bulls on Sunday in the first match of the two-game, total goals Eastern Conference final series.

Josef Martinez, who set MLS’s single season record this year with 31 goals, opened the scoring in front of more than 70,000 fans at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, nodding home a perfect Jeff Larentowicz cross in the first half:

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Bradley Wright-Phillips appeared to draw the visitors level with a vital away goal, but his strike was scrubbed from the scoreboard after the video assistant referee determined that Red Bulls forward Alex Muyl, who was standing in an offside position on the play, obstructed the view of Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

Franco Escobar would later double United’s advantage before Hector Villalba put away the game — and perhaps the series — with the backbreaker deep into injury time.


The Red Bulls were severely punished for coach Chris Armas’ decision to abandon the club’s trademark high-pressure system. With the visitors sitting back in a defensive shell, Atlanta’s dynamic attackers had the space they needed to pick them apart. It was sweet revenge for the Five Stripes, who were leapfrogged for the regular season title by the Red Bulls on the final day of the campaign. New York would now need a 3-0 win in Thursday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena just to send the series to extra time. If Atlanta manages just one away goal, the Red Bulls would have to score five to advance.

Barring a miracle, United will host the title match Dec. 8 against the winner of the Western Conference final between Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers. Atlanta, which shattered MLS’s single-season attendance mark in each of its first two years of existence, would almost surely set a new attendance record for MLS Cup. The current benchmark was established way back in 2002, when the New England Revolution lost to the LA Galaxy in front of 61,000-plus at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Portland the favorite heading into Leg 2?

In Sunday’s nightcap, the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City played to a scoreless draw in Oregon. The hosts thought they had taken a 1-0 lead with about 20 minutes to go in the opener, but  David Guzman’s goal was whistled back for offside. Replays showed that it was the correct decision:


The home side had another golden opportunity to take a slim lead back to Kansas City in the return leg before the match was finished. Sporting keeper Tim Melia had other ideas:


The two teams will have everything to play for when they meet at Sporting Park on Thursday. SKC boasts the home field advantage. But even as the postseason’s lowest remaining seed, the Timbers and coach Giovanni Savarese have to like their chances following Sunday’s spirited performance, especially if they can steal an away goal early on.

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

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