After the final whistle blew, the Atlanta United players lingered in the middle of the field, doling out hugs and soaking up cheers from the crowd of more than 70,000 fans.
Everyone knew this was a huge step toward M.L.S. Cup.
And it was fueled by Josef Martinez, Franco Escobar and Hector Villalba, who all scored for Atlanta in a 3-0 rout of the Red Bulls in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
“We’ve just raised our game,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve raised the energy, the desire, the fight.”
The three-goal advantage gives Atlanta a huge edge heading into the second leg Thursday night in Harrison, N.J. The winner of the two-game, cumulative-goals series will host M.L.S. Cup final Dec. 8 against either Portland or Sporting Kansas City.
Atlanta helped themselves toward that goal by defeating the Red Bulls for the first time after three losses and a draw in their previous meetings. Atlanta also got a bit of redemption after losing the Supporters’ Shield, given to the team with the best regular-season record, to the Red Bulls on the final day of the season.
The matchup Sunday between the two best teams in M.L.S. was a one-sided affair. Atlanta, in its second season as a franchise, dominated much of the game and could have won by an even bigger margin. While a Red Bulls goal was waved off after a video review and Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan made a clutch save in the closing minutes, the game was played mostly in the Red Bulls’ end of the field.
KANSAS CITY 0, PORTLAND 0 Tim Melia made six saves and visiting Sporting K.C. survived the Timbers’ aggressive attack to emerge with a draw in the opening leg of the Western Conference finals.
The Timbers outshot Sporting 14-9 and had six shots on target but could not break through. Portland’s Jorge Villafana hit the post just a few minutes into the match, and the Timbers appeared to have taken the lead in the 70th minute but the goal was called back for offside.
The teams now head to Kansas City for the second leg on Thursday.
Sporting was without forward Diego Rubio for the opening leg because of yellow card accumulation. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Khiry Shelton.