Last weekend’s crucial 1-0 road win in New York is only half the job done, the matchup will be decided for good on Sunday as NYCFC comes to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for leg two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Five Stripes are in control with a one-goal lead, but will have to earn their right to move on to the conference finals in what’s sure to be another physical battle.
Every moment matters in the MLS postseason, so this will be one you won’t want to miss. Tune in to ESPN at 5:30 p.m. EST Sunday to catch every minute from a do-or-die match in Atlanta, or click here for all the other ways to tune in for the match.
#2 Atlanta United
Atlanta United may be known for their free-flowing counter-attacking offense, but they showed the steely side to their game in the first leg. Postseason soccer requires mental and physical toughness in tight, gritty games, so it was just what the doctor ordered: a huge road win in Yankee Stadium, only the second time NYCFC has lost there all year long.
It started with a strong defensive performance that held NYCFC to zero shots on target for the match – marking the first time that’s happened this season. Franco Escobar took home man-of-the-match honors, but everyone in the back –– Leandro González Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, and Greg Garza –– was outstanding, tallying 27 clearances on the day. And who could forget the performance of Eric Remedi. Not only did he score the game-winning goal –– the first in his entire professional career –– he was relentless all match, hounding NYCFC’s star creative outlets and breaking up play in the center of the park.
Joining a defensive unit that’s hitting peak form at the right time is an Atlanta United attack that is back fit and firing for the postseason. Miguel Almirón making it through a tough 45 minutes unscathed will only make him stronger for leg two with another week of training under his belt. The speedy Tito Villalba has shown sparks off the bench since coming back from his injury as well. But just as important are two unsung heroes in the Atlanta United midfield. Darlington Nagbe and Julian Gressel showed in New York that not only can they create for their teammates, they’re ready to put in the work that a postseason run needs. All that firepower feeding a striker in Josef Martinez that looked hungrier than ever in the first match, and you have a confident side ready to take control of their postseason destiny this weekend.
#3 New York City
New York City FC has plenty of reasons to feel confident themselves. Just one goal ahead, Atlanta United will have to be just as sharp as round one to keep the Cityzens from getting back into the game. With another week to rest and their backs against the wall, expect a strong showing for a team that has been an even matchup for Atlanta United in the past.
Leading the way of the dynamic NYC attack is the lethal pair of Argentine playmaker Maxi Moralez and Spanish legend David Villa. Atlanta United’s defenders pointed out after Sunday’s win that the midfield put in a lot of work shutting down Moralez in the center. When they did, New York struggled to create chances from the middle of the field. That’s where Moralez and Villa do their best work, linking together short passes and give-and-goes to create space for a shot. But Ismael Tajouri-Shradi’s powerful wing game was a threat all night on Sunday, and he will be constantly looking to cut into the middle for a powerful shot as well.
Scoring against NYCFC starts in the midfield, where they have maybe the strongest central midfield partnership in the league. Yangel Herrera and Alex Ring are two strong, box-to-box midfielders that will look to dictate the tempo of play. Maxime Chanot and Alex Callens will be up for the postseason intensity, bringing an athletic pairing to the middle of the back line while Ben Sweat and Anton Tinnerholm try to bring pressure up the flanks. And behind it all sits Lilburn, Georgia’s own Sean Johnson, one of the best shot-stoppers in the league.
It’s a tight matchup between two top-level sides both fighting for their season. The last time these two teams faced off at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it was one of the matches of the season ending in a thrilling 2-2 draw. The Five Stripes will be hoping a packed house of Atlanta faithful can help push them into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in team history. Click here for all the ways to tune in from home.