HARRISON, N.J. -- This was supposed to be the team that ended the New York Red Bulls' MLS Cup futility. Lucky Year 23 for one of Major League Soccer's original franchises (née the New York/New Jersey MetroStars) that reached the playoffs 18 times in their first 22 seasons but never hoisted the trophy.
In 2018, the team won the Supporters' Shield with a league record 71 points. It was a squad that mixed the youth of Tyler Adams and the emergence of MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long with the veteran leadership of goalkeeper Luis Robles and star forward Bradley Wright-Phillips. Many of the players gained big-game experience in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup final and during a 2018 CONCACAF Champions League run. They fell short in both tournaments, but that wasn't the point.
"Everyone thinks we are too young, too naive, but there's a lot of experience even though there's a lot of youth," Long said a day after the final game of the regular season.
There was reason to think he might have been right. After the Red Bulls lost the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinal 1-0 on the road to the Columbus Crew, it looked like another disappointment for a franchise that specializes in them. But the group returned home to Red Bull Arena and posted a 3-0 victory to advance to the conference final on aggregate.
In the opening match of that series, the Red Bulls fell 3-0 to an inspired Atlanta United side. Still, an enthusiastic crowd at Red Bull Arena -- including at least one fan wearing a MetroStars jersey for luck ("Big game," he said while walking off the PATH train to the stadium. "We're gonna need it.") -- hoped their guys could pull off a miracle on a chilly November night. They cheered when Wright-Phillips touched the ball, booed -- and occasionally threw cups ... not a good showing -- when Atlanta United players stalled, and looked for a repeat of the Columbus match.
But the Red Bulls, like in so many years past, failed to produce.
There were half-chances in the first half. Kaku got on the end of a flick from Wright-Phillips in the 21st minute, only to be caught from behind by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and see his weak shot gobbled up by Brad Guzan. In the 41st, the Atlanta netminder came late for a punch and missed his spot, but Adams' shot from outside the 18-yard box flew into the crowd.
Mostly though, New York, unable to move the ball quickly enough, failed to find what little room their opponents offered. Atlanta, needing to do nothing other than not concede, stayed organized defensively with nine men behind the ball. (The home squad's insistence on playing through the air did nothing to help their chances.)
Early in the second half, Alex Muyl should have tapped in a cross from Kaku, but the midfielder failed to find the ball. Red Bull coach Chris Armas attempted to inject some attacking potency into his group as Derrick Etienne Jr. came on for Connor Lade and Marc Rzatkowski replaced Sean Davis in the 54th minute. Andreas Ivan would enter for Michael Murillo in the 73rd minute. None of the moves mattered.
Long, who had a goal taken off the board by VAR in Atlanta, suffered the same fate Thursday when referee Jair Marrufo ruled that the defender had fouled Guzan before heading the ball into the back of the net. Tim Parker's goal after a scrap in the box right before time provided no solace. On the night, Atlanta was the superior side, throttling New York and earning a place in MLS Cup in just its second year.
For the Red Bulls, it's a story they've told before: a strong season, followed by an anemic and auspicious playoff exit.
Next year, the team will look different. The group, many who came up together before they made the first team, winning a 2016 USL championship on Red Bulls II, will break up. Wappingers Falls product Adams is all but confirmed to be off to Europe, reportedly joining former Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch at RB Leipzig. Long, 26, could move across the pond as well. Others will go, too. There's room for at least one more designated player on the roster.
Regardless of how the team looks in 2019, Red Bulls supporters will have to wait at least one more year to raise MLS Cup. They've grown accustomed to patience, having been at this since the league began with no success.
For MLS, the scene moves to Atlanta, where United will host the winner of the Western Conference in the league final on Dec. 8. The city, rabid for its newest team, has experienced a long championship drought. The last Atlanta club to win one? The Braves, a year before the first MLS ball was kicked in 1996.