For a team that came on strong in the second half of the regular season, gaining the second-most points in the Eastern Conference since mid-July, it was unable to translate that success into the second half of its Round One playoff match.
Atlanta United’s 2021 campaign ended on Sunday with a 2-0 loss to New York City FC. The result eliminates Atlanta from the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“This is a franchise and club that should be in the playoffs every single season and pushing to win a trophy, so I think us coming up short tonight of our ultimate goal of lifting a trophy is really tough and it hurts,” defender Brooks Lennon said.
Atlanta United knew playing at Yankee Stadium was going to be a challenge. For about 35 minutes of the match on Sunday, the club played well on the league’s smallest pitch.
However, New York City dominated on its home field in the second half, scoring two goals in four minutes. Both goals came off set pieces.
“I feel like two set pieces were the difference today because I felt like the game was pretty even,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said.
Striker Valentín Castellanos scored the first goal on a cross that came from a short corner kick. The 2021 Golden Boot winner didn’t make good contact, but the shot's high bounce caught Atlanta United flat-footed and sailed into the upper corner of the net.
The goal was Castellanos’ seventh in five games.
A corner kick also initiated New York City’s second goal. In the 53rd minute, midfielder Maxi Moralez took a shot that hit the cross bar. Defender Alex Callens headed in the rebound to put NYCFC up 2-0.
New York City FC advances to face 1-seed New England Revolution in the Conference Semifinal on Tuesday, Nov. 30.
“Credit to New York City,” Pineda said. “They’re a good team, they’re well-coached and today they were better than us.”
It took time for players on both sides to feel out the match. The first shot came in the 21st minute from Atlanta midfielder Marcelino Moreno. After that, more attacking chances followed.
New York City finished the match with 13 shots and five on goal. Atlanta United had nine, four of those on goal.
In the 35th minute, Atlanta attackers passed the ball back and forth at the top of the box. Moreno finally took a shot but it rolled wide.
A minute later, Ezequiel Barco got the ball in the midfield and dribbled all the way from the halfway line to the edge of the six-yard. He took on several defenders and had the chance to draw a foul or take a shot, but New York City shut down his breakaway.
Defender Alan Franco was involved in two of Atlanta’s closest chances on the night. He nearly had a shot at point-blank range when midfielder Santiago Sosa whipped the ball across the box that found Franco’s feet at the far post.
Then on a corner kick from Barco in the 87th minute, Franco headed the ball and forced NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson to make a save.
Atlanta United struggled to utilize two of its key playmakers. The narrow pitch made it difficult for striker Luiz Araújo to use his speed in his first MLS Cup Playoffs appearance. Striker Josef Martínez only had 22 touches and 19 passes, and was unable to add to his five career goals in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“We never really found our attacking foot in terms of going forward and really dominating possession in the attacking third and creating as many chances as we would’ve liked,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
The small size of the pitch made every set piece look extremely dangerous. New York City took one to end the first half to give the club momentum heading into halftime. Castellanos’s header from the center of the box went straight to Guzan.
Atlanta’s defense was well-organized in the first half, with all members of the four-person backline making big stops. In the 15th minute it looked like New York City would threaten on a fast break, but Franco ran it down for a clean takeaway.
A turnover in New York City’s attacking third created a strong look in the 31st minute. Defender George Bello came up with a crucial challenge in the six-yard-box to block the shot.
Center back Miles Robinson intercepted several passes, including clearing a dangerous ball near the post to steal a toe-in chance for Moralez in the 39th. The following play, Guzan came up with a diving save on a curling shot from midfielder Alfredo Morales.
Atlanta won the duel matchup (65 to New York City’s 47), but defensively couldn’t sustain stops. The two goals it conceded came in the opening eight minutes of the second half.
“I thought the backline played well tonight, and I don’t think they had clear cut opportunities every single second,” Lennon said. “I thought they had those two set piece opportunities, and they capitalized on them.”
Atlanta United finishes the 2021 season 13-9-12. Even though the season ends with a difficult loss, the club’s head coach was proud of the team’s fight.
“Today again was proof for me the heart of the team,” Pineda said. “They never give up. I love when teams don’t give up, even in a game like this. 2-0, playing away. The team showed a lot of character to come back, to try create chances. Even with a man down we were trying to push for the game. Those things for me are valuable, and I’m very proud of the heart of the team in general.”