It’s the marquee matchup in MLS this weekend at Mercedes-Benz as Atlanta United (12-9-3) host an NYCFC (10-4-8) side nipping at their heels in the Eastern Conference Standings. With both teams fighting for the top seed in the playoffs, it’s a regular season match with huge postseason implications –– but with Atlanta United’s rowdy home fans behind them, they will feel confident of getting a crucial home victory.
Ahead of the major intraconference matchup, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot:
While NYCFC has talent all over the field, their match-changing touch often comes from their diminutive Argentine in creative midfielder Maxi Moralez. Moralez will be the one floating between the midfield and defensive lines, looking for pockets of space to play a defense-splitting pass to add to his team-best nine assists so far this season. NYCFC often lines up two strikers in front of him, so if a center back has to push forward to stop his run, that can leave a striker open behind them. So it will be key for Atlanta United’s midfielders to be constantly cognizant of where he is on the field and not get pushed too far forward that they leave gaps for Moralez to exploit behind them. If they can stay disciplined and mark Moralez out of the game, it can go a long way toward clogging up the NYCFC attack and cut off supply to their strikers up top.
Focus on the Flanks
NYCFC head coach Domenec Torrent’s first-choice lineup is often a 3-5-2, with two wingbacks that are constantly getting forward to provide width to their attack. Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm are two of the best two-way fullbacks in the league and will be constantly pushing down the wings to try to overload Atlanta United in wide positions in hopes of spreading out the Five Stripes’ defense and finding their target-man striker Héber with service from the wing. Atlanta United’s fullbacks, who get down the field in the attack plenty themselves, will have to be disciplined to not get caught too high up the field too often to prevent those two-on-one situations against their defenders. If they can do that, it could open up opportunities the other way in those wide spaces behind NYCFC’s fullbacks if they get too far forward themselves.
Get the Goal
Atlanta United may have to play this match without their top scorer Josef Martinez, with Frank de Boer telling reporters earlier this week that Martinez was day-to-day after straining his adductor muscle in training. Any time the reigning MVP can’t make the lineup is a loss for any team, but with Ezequiel Barco back fit in the starting lineup and Tito Villalba making his first appearance off the bench in Orlando, there are still plenty of weapons for the Five Stripes to choose from, not to mention the likes of Justin Meram, Emerson Hyndman and Darlington Nagbe in midfield. NYCFC hasn’t recorded a clean sheet in seven matches, so there are vulnerabilities to be found. If Atlanta United can get an early goal, it will put NYCFC on their heels, force them to come out of their defensive shape, and get the sea of red, black and gold 17s fired up to roar them on the rest of the match.
It's two teams fighting at the top of the East in a match with major playoff implications, and with another packed house at Mercedes-Bnez Stadium, this is one you won’t want to miss. Click here to secure your tickets or click here for all the other ways to tune into the match.