Tools to the Match: How Atlanta United advances in Audi MLS Cup Playoffs NYCFC

The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs have arrived and Atlanta United heads up north to take on New York City FC at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The 5-Stripes closed out the regular season on a six-match unbeaten streak and enter the postseason as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. NYCFC earned the No. 4 seed after securing a point on Decision Day against Philadelphia. The two sides have met once before in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Back in 2018, Atlanta advanced past NYCFC 4-1 on aggregate, winning both matchups. Let’s take a look at the Tools to the Match presented by The Home Depot against FC Cincinnati.

Don’t let Yankee Stadium’s small pitch impact your game

It’s no secret that playing soccer at Yankee Stadium is a unique experience. Atlanta United has played on this particular pitch on four occasions. The 5-Stripes have scored one goal in each of those four matches and secured a 1-0 win in the only previous playoff meeting at Yankee Stadium. Atlanta has been able to create opportunities in matches at Yankee Stadium, averaging 5.5 chances created per match. One of the keys for Sunday will be to take advantage of those opportunities and not let the size of the pitch impact the game. Both teams will have to play on it as head coach Gonzalo Pineda remarked in the lead-up to this match.

“No complaints about the size of the pitch. For me what happens on the field is 11 against 11. It’s going to be the same field for both. They are maybe more used to it, but we will do as much as we can. But if we win or lose, it won’t be because of the size of the field. It will be because we either play good or bad and that’s my approach to that.”

Keep Castellanos and Moralez under control

NYCFC features the 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner in Valentin Castellanos. The Argentine striker has had an excellent season scoring 19 goals and adding eight assists, with nine of his goals coming at Yankee Stadium this year. His 132 total shots and 57 shots on target were also a league-high in 2021. Castellanos is a very mobile striker who likes to drift in between the lines and then pounce in the box. Atlanta’s backline and midfield will have to keep eyes on Castellanos at all times.

Another player that Atlanta needs to keep under control is midfield maestro Maxi Moralez. The Argentine completed his fifth season with NYCFC after joining in 2017 and once again produced double-digit assists with 11 in 2021. He has produced 60 assists since joining NYCFC in MLS regular season play, which is the most of any league player during that time period. Atlanta will need to ensure that Moralez is not given the kind of time and space on the ball that he thrives in. He’s also a dangerous dead-ball specialist, so keeping free kicks and corner kicks to a minimum will be another key for Atlanta United.

Continue to play with free-flowing attack

Atlanta United’s attack has picked up over the second half of the season. The 5-Stripes have scored 32 goals since the middle of July and have launched the most fast breaks (23) in MLS according to Opta during that time period. One of the keys on Sunday will be to continue that fast-paced, free-flowing attack against NYCFC. Atlanta’s playmakers all have the skills and abilities to decide a game at any moment. The team has completed the most dribbles (449) of any team that qualified for the playoffs. In tight spaces, the technical ability of Ezequiel Barco, Luiz Araújo and Marcelino Moreno could prove to be the difference.

Atlanta also has striker Josef Martinez, who has 26 game-winning goals in his Atlanta United career and will look at add to his tally on Sunday. Martinez is coming off a game-winning goal on Decision Day against Cincinnati with a spectacular volley.