It wasn’t always pretty, but Atlanta United did the job in Toronto to emerge from the international break with a vital three points. It might be a good idea, however, to peruse the thesaurus for synonyms of words such as crucial, important, or key. Because the final five games of Atlanta’s 2021 Regular Season are only going to soar in stakes. The Eastern Conference is as clumped as ever and there’s a way for just about anyone to finish anywhere. The Five Stripes don’t get much time to reflect on the first away win of Gonzalo Pineda’s tenure and return to the familiar confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a midweek matchup against New York City.
The Citizens once seemed like a lock for a playoff spot, if not more, but its season is now on life support. NYCFC has one win since September began, a stretch spanning nine games. It’s also been shutout in its last four and scored multiple open play goals in one game just once. Behind the scenes, however, New York has one of the best attacks statically. It leads the East in expected goals (49.9xg) and still boasts the 4th best actual offense with 44 goals despite the recent drought. The killer-blow for NYCFC’s playoff hopes is that its defense took the opportunity to follow the footsteps of its attack into a horror run of form. It has one shutout in the last nine and though its not leaking goals left the right, the double-punch of poor form at both ends of the pitch has spelled doom for Ronny Deila’s side. The Norwegian manager is in his second year at the club but doesn’t seem likely to last beyond the end of the season. Despite signifigant investment in the form of highly-touted youngsters Thiago Andrade and Talles Magno and vetrans like Alfredo Morales and Gudmundur Thórarinsson, the results have failed to improve over the course of his spell in charge.
Still, NYCFC has more than enough talent to cause anyone in the league problems. Taty Castellanos can veer widely between great and comical but has a superb tally of 13 goals (wayward finishing has cost him at least five more according to expected goals) and 7 assists. Jesus Medina (8g, 2a), Santiago Rodriguez (3g), Maxi Moralez (2g, 9a), and Thiago (3g, 1a) can also cause havoc on their day. With the exception of the 34-year-old Moralez, all of the above are 24 or younger. 2021 may not be NYCFC’s year but it’s hard to see them hanging around the middle of the East much longer.
Predicted Starting XIs
With Ezequiel Barco suspended and Josef Martinez still questionable, Pineda has some thinking to do in the attacking department. Luiz Araujo will be tasked with providing much of the firepower but its an open question as to who’ll support him and Marcelino Moreno up top.
Prediction: Atlanta United 2-1 NYCFC
The Citizens will put up a fight as desperation sets in, but ultimately Atlanta will condem New York to yet another road defeat (it’s won just three times outside Red Bull Arena/Yankee Stadium). Goals from Marcelino Moreno and super-sub Josef Martinez will cancel out a Castelllanos strike and give Atlanta vital breathing room from the red line.