For a team that preached playing calm and in control through the playoffs, New York City FC was anything but on Sunday night.
Instead, they played desperately and chased the game in their 1-0 loss against Atlanta United in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the Bronx. Although a one-goal deficit isn’t impossible to come back from on the road, NYCFC might have been beaten down beyond repair after the loss.
“I have to find the best solution and the best team to play better,” head coach Domenec Torrent said to the media after the loss. “We didn’t defend well, the set pieces especially. Every single corner, every single free kick, they could finish.
“We have to improve because, in a semifinal or a final, you have to be focused on that, in every single action.”
Instead of looking like a side that dominated their last two matches with a pair of 3-1 wins entering Sunday night, they looked more like the side that barely managed three wins in their final 13 matches of the regular season. David Villa was contained throughout the night, as was Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Maxi Moralez. Both Villa and Moralez were beaten up by Atlanta’s backline and unable to truly create anything inside Atlanta’s 18-yard box.
Atlanta’s lone goal on the night came off of a corner kick in the 37th minute. Julian Gressel’s corner found Josef Martinez behind the crowd inside New York City’s 18-yard box, Martinez ripped a shot-on-goal which was saved by Sean Johnson, but parried loose at the post. With no NYCFC defenders anywhere close to the far post, Eric Remedi ran in and tapped in the loose ball across the line for Atlanta’s lone goal on the night.
As creative and in control as NYCFC was throughout their last two matches entering Sunday night, the hosts were unable to get their passing game going in the midfield and were unable to get through Atlanta’s backline. They also missed out on key opportunities – Ronald Matarrita missed wide on what should’ve possibly been the opening goal in the 16th minute, and in a wild sequence inside Atlanta’s 18-yard box just before halftime, David Villa was called for a high kick on a bicycle kick try.
Atlanta United pressed them throughout the entire 90 minutes, and although NYCFC knew that was coming, they were still unable to figure out the Five Stripes.
“I think they did a good job at pressing,” Johnson said. “I mean, the way they set up, they knew how we wanted to play. Obviously, we can improve and figure out a better way to advance the ball and gain more control of the game, because when we do that, we score.”
Although Atlanta played back throughout the second half, NYCFC allowed a few chances for them to grab a second goal that could’ve ended any hopes the New Yorkers had of a shot at the conference finals. Maxime Chanot came through in the clutch on a 2-v-1 scenario early in the second half, blocking a shot by Hector Villalba, and Johnson made a crucial save entering second-half stoppage time on a shot by Greg Garza. Entering Sunday’s second leg at Atlanta, NYCFC will look to build off of those few defensive highlights.
“I think we changed the way we were playing a little bit, pushed a bit higher on the sides,” midfielder Alex Ring explained. “I played alone in the midfield, I think that gave us a better rhythm maybe, where we were better spread out in the pitch than in the first half.
“You have to give them credit, they did well the first half and they know we like to play from the back, but I think we showed in the second half that if we play like that we’ll have a really good chance in Atlanta.”
For the third straight year, NYCFC enters the second leg of the Eastern semifinals in a hole. The scene is a familiar one for NYCFC, that has pulled through in the clutch since the regular season finale and in the knockout – survive and advance.
“Obviously we know what we have to do,” Johnson explained. “Nothing really matters in the past going forward now. So, we’re not really looking into our struggles in the past leading up to this next game in Atlanta, so we’re just going to treat it like a final.”