ATLANTA — This has all the makings of an MLS Cup final.
The New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United are the two best teams in Major League Soccer. Their battle for the Supporters' Shield went down to the final day of the regular season . The Red Bulls totaled the most points in league history, with Atlanta right behind.
"I think this is exactly what MLS wanted in the playoffs," New York goalkeeper Luis Robles said.
Even if it does fall one step ahead of the championship game.
These two powerhouses will meet in a two-leg Eastern Conference final, which begins Sunday night before another expected crowd of more than 70,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The second game will be Thursday night in Harrison, New Jersey.
"The approach is what it's been all along," said Red Bulls coach Chris Armas, who took over the job at midseason when Jesse Marsch left for a job in Europe . "The last 10 games of the season felt like playoff games. We felt like we couldn't slip up. That's what it feels like now."
The Red Bulls were a charter member of MLS when the league was founded in 1996 (known originally as the MetroStars), and they've been one of MLS' most successful clubs.
But they've never won an MLS Cup, coming closest to a title in 2008 when they lost to Columbus Crew in the final. Despite winning the Supporters' Shield for the third time in six years with 71 points, this team knows that anything less than a championship will be viewed as a failure.
"Yeah, it's been an amazing season," Armas said. "But we're 23 years going, and there's a cup out there we want really bad."
In just two seasons, United has quickly emerged as a league's marquee franchise, featuring two of the league's most dazzling players (Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez and Miquel Almiron, both MVP finalists) and boasting some of the best fan support of any club in the world. Atlanta broke its own attendance record this season, averaging more than 53,000 per game at its dazzling, retractable-roof home.
But even with all that success, there's something missing.
United went into the last day of the regular season leading the Supporters' Shield standings, only to flop in a 4-1 loss at Toronto that allowed the Red Bulls to take the prize.
Defender Michael Parkhurst said that slip-up is providing extra motivation in the playoffs, which Atlanta opened with a win over New York City in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"If we had won the Supporters' Shield and just got knocked out playoffs against New York City, we probably would've looked back and said, 'Hey, it was still a pretty good season.' Now, I don't think we'll be able to look back and say that until we win a trophy," Parkhurst said. "The goal is to win a trophy, for sure."
United also wants to send its coach out in style.
Tata Martino has already announced he will be leaving at the end of the season , reportedly to take over as Mexico's national team coach. The former Barcelona and Argentina national coach has been a huge factor in Atlanta's immediate success, most notably by persuading talented South American players such as Martinez and Almiron to take a chance on an MLS expansion team.
Before the playoff-clinching win over New York City FC , United fans unveiled a tifo of Martino in statue-like form.
"People understand that Tata has had a big role in this team from the beginning," Parkhurst said. "We were able to bring in talent that may not have come here without him. It's not only what we've done on the field, the product we've been able to bring on a weekly basis and the results. It's also the culture he created here from day one."
The Red Bulls' success is all the more remarkable given the jarring change they went through in early July when Marsch left to become assistant manager with RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga, leading to Armas' promotion.
Since he took over, New York is 12-3-3 — including five straight victories to close the regular season. In the Eastern Conference semifinals against Columbus, the Red Bulls rebounded from a 1-0 loss on the road to win the series with a 3-0 victory at home.
"It's never easy when transitioning from assistant coach to head coach," New York's Sean Davis said. "There are different ways you have to manage players. But Chris has done a fantastic job of adjusting. There's nothing that really prepared him for that until he stepped into the head coaching role. With the limited time he got, he's been fantastic. The guys love playing for him just like they loved playing for Jesse Marsch."