Atlanta United have clinched their spot in their first U.S. Open Cup final in team history, but it’s back to league action this weekend as they host Eastern Conference contender NYCFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team from the Bronx are making a strong push up the table and sit one point behind the Five Stripes with two matches in hand –– so a win either way would be a big result in the quest for the top seed in the East.
It all kicks off at 4:00 p.m. EST Sunday on ESPN. Click here for all the ways to tune in.
Atlanta United (12-9-3)
Atlanta United come into the weekend in strong form with four wins in their past five matches, with 15 goals scored over that stretch. But they’ll need to be at their best to beat an NYCFC side that is nipping at their heels in the standings.
It's still to be determined whether they will have to do so without the reigning MVP, with Frank de Boer telling reporters Friday that Josef Martinez is still listed as day-to-day after an adductor strain in training earlier this week. But with Ezequiel Barco returning to the starting lineup alongside Pity Martínez over the last two matches, and Tito Villalba returning from injury on Tuesday, there is plenty of firepower up top for the Five Stripes. Meanwhile Justin Meram has been in sensational form on the wing, proving to be one of the best signings of the midseason MLS transfer window, while Julian Gressel’s service down the right continues to be a constant threat against any team in the league.
But this match may be won in midfield, and that’s where Atlanta United have been so good in recent weeks. Darlington Nagbe continues to put together yet another quietly dominant season, while Emerson Hyndman’s first goal for the club on Tuesday was just the exclamation point on yet another strong performance in the middle for the young American international. Meanwhile, Eric Remedi is coming off a superb performance in Orlando with the match-winning goal as well as the key pass to seal the game’s second goal late on, while Jeff Larentowicz showed against the LA Galaxy last weekend he is always ready to add steel to the midfield whenever he is needed. Leandro González Pirez, Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar have been the first-choice back line in front of Brad Guzan, but Florentin Pogba has filled in flawlessly when called upon –– so head coach Frank de Boer has plenty of options to line up his defense as well. So while the club may be missing one of the league’s elite players in Josef Martinez, their depth has never been better, so they will still be confident of facing anyone at their home fortress of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
NYCFC rode a 14-match unbeaten streak to rise up the Eastern Conference table, but have lost two of their last three road matches. They come into the match fresh off a stoppage-time comeback at Yankee Stadium against the Houston Dynamo on Thursday, so although they rested key players, they do come in on short rest. The Five Stripes meanwhile have been as dominant as ever at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this year and will hope their rowdy home fans can push them to a big victory.
To do that that, they’ll have to stop one of the in-form creators in the league in Maxi Moralez, whose nine assists this season are more than double anyone else on the squad. The Argentine’s quick dribbles, flicks and tricks from the #10 position are often the gamechanger for the Cityzens, whose slick, one-touch passing can open up any defense. He’ll be looking to feed an under-the-radar candidate for Newcomer of the Year in Brazilian target-man striker Héber, an early-season acquisition whose nine goals kickstarted a slow start for the New Yorkers. His powerful style complements another first-year MLS player in Alexandru Mirita, whose quickness and finishing rounds off a strong attacking trio leading the line. And keep an eye out for the NYCFC fullbacks. Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm get up and down the field as much as any defenders in the league to add a wide attacking outlet to their compact midfield.
The other side of the ball starts with their captain Alex Ring, a 2018 MLS All-Star who is as good as any defensive midfielder in the league when he is on form. He will be looking to protect a back three of former D.C. United center back Maxime Chanot, Peruvian Alex Callens and American youngster James Sands in front of Lilburn, Georgia native Sean Johnson in the NYCFC goal. It’s a strong unit that’s conceded exactly as many goals as Atlanta United so far this season, but have shown vulnerabilities to go their past seven matches without a clean sheet.
It’s a huge matchup against two of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference –– and with a rowdy home crowd of 17s in the stands, this is one that is certain to be a memorable one. Make sure you’ve reserved your tickets here, or if you can’t make it, click here for all the ways to root on the Five Stripes from home.