It’s one of the biggest fixtures in all of MLS this season with massive postseason seeding implications as Atlanta United travels to the Bronx to take on NYCFC on Wednesday. The Five Stripes sit just four points behind the Cityzens, who lead the Eastern Conference, so a road win would make it just a one-point race heading into the final two matches of the season.
It all kicks off Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. ET on Fox Sports South. If you can’t make the trip North, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.
Atlanta United (17-11-3)
Atlanta United come into the match off a six-point week and a second half of the season charge up the Eastern Conference standings, but they face their toughest challenge yet on the road against NYCFC on Wednesday.
They’ll have to do so without two of their key attackers, with Head Coach Frank de Boer ruling out Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco from the midweek match as they work their way back from injury. Fortunately, Tito Villalba is back and ready for action after his knee injury earlier this season, showing flashes of his dynamic attacking ability against San Jose over the weekend. Pity Martínez got another goal for his season tally over the weekend and will have to play a key role in the attack. But when Josef has been out of the lineup –– first in the Open Cup, and then against San Jose on Saturday –– it’s been Emerson Hyndman that’s stepped up with big goals both times. And don’t forget Brandon Vazquez, ready to bring a physical presence to the front line as well.
In the back half of the field, only Brek Shea’s season-ending surgery is affecting the defense, so expect a full-strength lineup. Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi have locked down the midfield, but don’t be surprised to see Jeff Larentowicz bring a little extra defensive solidity during a tough road match. Julian Gressel has been an ever-present on the right side, while Justin Meram and Dion Pereira are fit and available for the opposite wing. And in the back, Leandro González Pirez, Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar are all ready to defend their goal –– while Florentin Pogba could be another option whose strong style of defending could thrive in the tight spaces of Yankee Stadium. And locking down the back is Brad Guzan, who is just two clean sheets away from the all-time MLS single-season shutout record. Clean sheets are a team statistic, and Guzan will need an organized performance in front of him to secure it. But if they can, it will go a long way toward clinching a huge win in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
NYCFC are unbeaten in their last eight league matches, the joint-longest active run in MLS and their second-longest in team history. With their unique home-field advantage proving a tough challenge for any visiting team, it’s another major challenge for the Five Stripes on Wednesday.
They will be without their top scorer as well with Brazilian target man Héber still nursing a thigh injury that’s kept him out the past few weeks. Meanwhile young American James Sands remains out with a broken collarbone, and the status of Anton Tinnerholm is still up in the air as well. One of the best two-way fullbacks in the league, Tinnerholm had to be subbed out of their road draw in Dallas over the weekend due to concussion-like symptoms. But they still have plenty of firepower in the attack, with another newcomer in young Argentine striker Taty Castellanos filling in up top with double-digit goals of his own. And keep an eye out for their two, quick technical DPs in Maxi Moralez and Alexandru Mitrita buzzing around their strong center forward, looking to combine with short passes in the tight confines of Yankee Stadium, and capable of pouncing on any half chance.
Their solidity in the defensive half starts with one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS in Alexander Ring, a tactically-disciplined enforcer who will be constantly looking to break up Atlanta United’s slick passing play. Behind them, a center back pairing who have played together for years and who know exactly how to play together in Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens, a powerful pair that are a challenge anywhere but especially in the smaller defensive areas of their home pitch. NYCFC is a team that’s flexible enough to go with a four-man back line or a three-man defense, with former Minnesota United midfielder Eric Miller sometimes sliding into the back to provide cover for the marauding runs of Tinnerholm and Ronald Matarrita. And if you get past them, you still have to beat one of the best pure shot-stoppers in the league in Georgia native Sean Johnson in the net. It’s a tough challenge, but one Atlanta United are ready for with three huge points on the line.
With a postseason berth secured, it’s all eyes on home-field advantage for Atlanta United, and no match is more crucial than a late 1 vs 2 matchup to secure it. If you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.