HARRISON, N.J. — Atlanta United's juggernaut rolled into the MLS Cup final on Thursday, as a 1-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls wasn't nearly enough to upend a 3-1 aggregate win in the Eastern Conference final series.
After Atlanta won a blowout in first leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Red Bulls needed to score early and often. They did neither. Despite having 65 percent of the possession, New York recorded just one shot on goal. Atlanta had two, including a chance for star striker Josef Martínez just 13 seconds in that could have ended the drama right then.
The second half brought more shots, but the only goal came in the 91st minute on a goalmouth scramble.
All that was left at the final whistle was the same sense of resignation that has hovered over the Red Bulls, and the MetroStars before them, through MLS' entire 23-year history. New York is the only one of MLS' eight original teams still standing that has never won the MLS Cup or the U.S. Open Cup.
This year's failure was especially disappointing. The Red Bulls didn't just win their third Supporters' Shield in six years for having MLS' best regular-season record, they did so with the highest points total in MLS history. They then beat the Columbus Crew in the conference semifinals with a come-from-behind 3-1 aggregate victory that felt like a statement.
But in the conference final, history repeated itself. Atlanta, which blew its shot at the Supporters' Shield with a loss on the last day of the regular season, won this series with a perfect mix of high-powered offense and stingy defense.
The offense, led by star playmaker Miguel Almirón and striker Josef Martínez, cranked up to full blast in the first leg. The defense then did the job in the second leg, with a night of great tenacity led by Chestnut Hill Academy product Jeff Larentowicz.
"We understood that we needed to win the fight first and foremost against the Red Bulls, or at least match it," Atlanta centerback and captain Michael Parkhurst said. "Coming here, we were always going to be a little bit more defensive … We knew it wasn't going to be that pretty, that we weren't going to connect a ton of passes, but we dug in and we fought."
Now Atlanta will host the championship game against the Portland Timbers on Dec. 8 (7:30 p.m., Fox and UniMás). Portland beat Sporting Kansas City 3-2 on aggregate in the Western Conference final. All five goals came in Saturday's second leg at Kansas City.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is sure to be full to its 72,000 capacity for the title game. Atlanta drew over 70,000 fans all seven times it opened the full building this year, and will set a MLS Cup Final attendance record when it does so one more time.