After a one-season hiatus, Atlanta United is back in the playoffs. The Five Stripes have gone through five coaches since its last post-season appearance, but Gonzalo Pineda has been the man to guide Atlanta over the red-line. The good guys won’t have it easy in Round One, however, with a visit to the abnormally tight confines of Yankee Stadium on the cards. The opponent is an infamous as well, as New York City snatched a 1-1 draw from Atlanta’s grasp with a 90th minute equalizer back on October 20th. Had Gudmundur Thórarinsson not nestled that free kick pefectly into the upper corner, New York’s losing run would have stretched to four and Atlanta would be hosting Sunday’s affair.
Since that draw, New York has gone four games unbeaten. It swept DC United, Chicago, and Miami aside by a combined score of 10-1 before a Decision Day draw against Philadelphia, made even more impressive considering NYCFC played down a man for seventy minutes and was forced to come from behind. The Citizens have had a rather rocky season, frequently playing far better than their results would suggest. New York’s expected goals differential is the best in the league according to fbref but its failed to get its attack and defense playing at the levels they’re capable of simultaneously. Ronny Deila’s side has more than enough quality to hang with anyone in MLS, however, and if he can find a way to make City click in the postseason, the sky is the limit. Taty Castellanos is the main dangerman for New York and won the Golden Boot award with 19 goals and 8 assists. Maxi Moralez (3g, 11a), Jesus Medina (9g, 2a), Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (7g), and Thiago Andrade (4g, 1a) are also more than capable of causing Atlanta complications Sunday. Brazilian attacker Talles Magno hasn’t seen much playing time this season but currently averages a goal every 225 minutes and can provide a spark off the bench (as we saw first-hand back in October). New York clearly has an excess of attacking options but there are some concerns elsewhere. Keaton Parks, Anton Tinnerholm, and Alexander Callens are all unavailable with injury (back-up midfielder Gedion Zelalem is suspended as well). The trio forms half of NYCFC’s top six passers so Deila will have to look to youngsters Nicolas Acevedo and James Sands to fill the gaps. Acevedo and Sands are undoubtedly talented but if Atlanta can get Santiago Sosa healthy and back to his early season form, the Five Stripes have a fair shot at winning the midfield battle.
As if Atlanta doesn’t have enough to worry about against a team as talented as New York, the Yankee Stadium pitch also gives the hosts a massive advantage. NYCFC was forced to play half of its home games at Red Bull Arena, where it struggled, but once back at the postage stamps it proved to be almost indestructible.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: NYCFC 2-3 Atlanta United
The Five Stripes will live to fight another day thanks to a Luiz Araujo brace and late Matheus Rossetto strike, though Taty Castellanos and Maxi Moralez will make Pineda’s side sweat out the ninety minutes.