It’s one of the matchups everyone circled on the calendar before the season even started, and with just three matches remaining it’s just as crucial as the top two seeds in the East fight it out for home-field advantage in the postseason. Atlanta United (17-11-3) travel to one of the toughest road venues in the league to face NYCFC (16-5-10) at Yankee Stadium, and if they can win in the Bronx, they’ll be just one point off the top with two matches remaining in the regular season.
Ahead of the crucial Eastern Conference matchup, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot:
Open up the Space
It’s a tough nut for any visiting team to crack: the tight confines of Yankee Stadium present a unique challenge with a smaller field in which to operate. NYCFC are unbeaten in six matches at home against teams in the top half of the table at home this year, one of only two teams in the league to achieve that feat. But the last one to do it was Atlanta United in last year’s playoffs, so they’ve shown they can do it before. The key is to capitalize on the spaces when they come. Atlanta United will have to stay spread across the entire width of the field in order to open up gaps between NYCFC’s powerful defenders, and when chances come in transition, they need to take them. If they can find space to operate in against a compact defensive block, it will go a long way toward getting that opening goal.
Find the Goals
It’s no secret that Atlanta United will be missing one of their key players with Josef Martinez sidelined for this match. The reigning MVP and Golden Boot winner hasn’t slowed down at all this year, and replacing his eye for goal will be a challenge. That means someone else will have to step up and find the match-changing moment. Pity Martínez has the skill to be the main man for any attacking line, while Tito Villalba showed over the weekend he’s ready to bring his dynamic playmaking ability into the starting lineup. But keep an eye out for two youngsters who have stepped up in Josef’s absence earlier this season in Emerson Hyndman and Brandon Vazquez, both of whom were crucial in this summer’s U.S. Open Cup run. Hyndman especially could use his classy technique to operate well in the tight spaces of Yankee Stadium, and showed against San Jose on Saturday he’s ready to finish off a pressure-filled chance.
Keep the Clean Sheet
No matter who scores, chances aren’t going to come in abundance against a team with as tight a backline and as big of a home-field advantage as NYCFC. Last year’s road win at Yankee Stadium came thanks to a clean sheet –– both a solid defensive performance and a couple key plays from Brad Guzan in goal. Atlanta United has kept clean sheets in each of their past three road wins, and their six road clean sheets this year is the most in franchise history. In fact, Brad Guzan sits just two clean sheets behind the all-time single-season shutout record in MLS history. They will need a big defensive performance to come out with a win on Wednesday. And if they can shut out their opponent, it will go a long way toward coming home with all three points.
With just three regular-season matches remaining, every 90 minutes is crucial for the Five Stripes as they push toward the postseason to defend their MLS Cup championship –– especially when they play the top seed in the East. If you can’t make the trip to New York, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.