The first of two wildly different games in the Eastern Conference semifinal showdown between New York City FC and Atlanta United kicks off on Sunday night.
The first leg of the two-part series will take place on NYCFC’s shortened field at Yankee Stadium before moving to the expansive Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a week’s time.
Sunday’s game will be the third in seven days for NYCFC, who dispatched the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round on Wednesday night, while the Five Stripes enter fresh and motivated after suffering a defeat to Toronto FC.
Both matches between NYCFC and Atlanta were played to draws. Alexander Ring forced a 2-2 draw in April with a 73rd minute equalizer in Atlanta, while Alexander Callens used a 77th minute equalizer to earn a 1-1 draw at Yankee Stadium in June.
Players to Watch
New York City FC: Maxi Moralez
In order for NYCFC to take full advantage of the small dimensions at Yankee Stadium, Maxi Moralez needs to be at his best. The diminutive No. 10 works well in tight space and provides a nice complement to David Villa in the final third.
With the Atlanta center backs focused on containing Villa, Moralez should be able to sneak into the final third and fire off a shot or two to test Brad Guzan early. The 31-year-old ended the regular season with three assists in his final two games and he caused all sorts of trouble to the Union’s center backs on Wednesday.
Atlanta United: Josef Martinez
The 2018 Golden Boot winner has cooled off since the start of September, but he’s still an important piece up top for the Five Stripes. Thirty-one goal scorer Josef Martinez found the back of the net on 15 occasions on the road in the regular season, with his final four tallies coming on Atlanta’s travels, including the lone tally in the 4-1 defeat at the hands of Toronto FC.
Martinez must be able to navigate through NYCFC’s center backs in short space in order to connect with whoever lines up behind him, whether it be Miguel Almiron or someone else. The Venezuelan doesn’t need to be a constant threat, but as long as he bags an away goal or two, Atlanta will be in great position to move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
Matchup to Watch
Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera vs. Atlanta’s Attacking Midfielders
No matter who starts beneath Martinez for Atlanta on Sunday, they’ll have a difficult time finding space because of the NYCFC duo of Yangel Herrera and Ring. Herrera and Ring are two of the most underrated players in MLS, and when they’re at their best, NYCFC feels unbeatable.
Herrera returned from a four-month injury layoff on Sunday against the Union, and he looked like he didn’t miss a beat, as he shut down the passing lanes in the middle of the field. With him clogging up all the space in the middle of the park, Ring is able to be more effective in front of the back four, and he can also shift out wide to provide defensive cover if need be.
Atlanta will throw either a healthy Almiron, Darlington Nagbe or Ezequiel Barco into the fray against Herrera and Ring as the creative midfielder attempting to link up with Martinez. If those two are as effective as they were on Wednesday, Atlanta’s chances will be few and far between.
New York City FC: Ronald Matarrita
In order for NYCFC to overwhelm Atlanta and take it out of its rhythm, the wingers in Domenec Torrent’s system need to be effective. Costa Rican Ronald Matarrita should have a good amount of space to operate in moving forward, as he benefits from the attention given to Moralez and Villa. His presence on the wing also allows him to go back and help Ben Sweat defending on the left flank against Atlanta’s technical attackers.
Atlanta United: Jeff Larentowicz
It’s still astonishing to think one of the most important players in the Atlanta lineup chock full of flashy South American stars is a 35-year-old MLS veteran. Jeff Larentowicz’s presence in front of the back four allows the Atlanta attackers to take risks because the 14-year veteran is able to halt the advancements of the opposing counter. He will be tasked with a similar assignment to Herrera and Ring, as he needs to clog up the space in the middle of the field in order to push NYCFC out wide and negate Moralez’s impact on the contest.
Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium could be the closest of the four opening-leg contests due to the level of talent on each side of the field. NYCFC will try to once again take advantage of its small home field by working quick in tight space through Moralez and Villa after Herrera and Ring.
Atlanta should look to approach the match in a similar fashion because of the speed and technical ability it possess in its squad, but the one major difference between the loss in Toronto and Sunday is the availability of Almiron, who is working his way back from a hamstring injury.
While the Five Stripes have consistently been one of the best teams in MLS over the last two years, they struggled in the regular season against the top clubs in the league. Tata Martino’s team went 8-7-2 against playoff teams, and it was outplayed by the New York Red Bulls in its last meeting with a postseason foe at the start of October.
With the pressure mounting to win a trophy before Martino departs, an argument can be made that Atlanta needs this game more. However, there’s no guarantee the Five Stripes will come out of the first leg with an advantage because of how well NYCFC has played in the last two games. Although the fourth-year side failed to impress down the stretch, it reversed its form at the right time, and now it appears to be one of the favorites to hoist MLS Cup alongside Atlanta and the Red Bulls.