Atlanta United-NYCFC primed for competitive series
If the two regular-season meetings are any indication of what's to come, the Eastern Conference semifinal showdown between Atlanta United and New York City FC is going to be must-see playoff soccer.
The opponents possess some of the top attacking talent in Major League Soccer, with Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba leading Atlanta and David Villa, Maxi Moralez and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi pacing NYCFC.
There are stars in all positions and two managers in Atlanta's Tata Martino and NYCFC's Dome Torrent who want to showcase the beautiful game.
And if two regular-season meetings are any indication, there is also little separating the two sides in the two-legged series, beginning Sunday night at Yankee Stadium.
"They have players of quality, especially Almiron, Martinez and Villalba, many players," Torrent said. "If you make a mistake, they kill you. We have to be focused in every single action because its a game if you make a mistake they take advantage."
The teams played to a 2-2 draw at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with NYCFC rallying from two deficits to equalize twice on goals by Villa and Alex Ring.
When the scene shifted to the Bronx in early June, NYCFC was dominant and unlucky not to take all three points. Instead, they settled for a 1-1 draw with Alex Callens leveling the score after a Martinez goal early in the second half.
Both teams were among the best three in the league, along with the New York Red Bulls, at the time, but NYCFC's form trailed off for nearly three months as Torrent tweaked his lineup and hoped for a clean bill of health from his squad.
That became a reality on the final day of the regular season and in the Knockout Round, when NYCFC defeated the Philadelphia Union 3-1 at Yankee Stadium twice in the span of four days.
With the return of Venezuelan midfielder Yangel Herrera, as well as Tajouri-Shradi, Moralez and Villa, NYCFC outclassed Philadelphia in the Knockout Round, racing out to a two-goal lead after 26 minutes before Moralez put the game away with a clever chip in the 78th minute.
Healthy, confident and at home, NYCFC is again looking like the contender it was in the early portion of the season.
"Maybe it's our best moment because we recover many players," Torrent said. "You know we play much better here, but right now we have 23 players.
"That means you can decide this player plays or you can play in this way or another way. You know how important it is for us when our key men are getting better right now and they are in top form. It's good news for us."
While NYCFC is healthy at the right time, the same can't be said of Atlanta, which spent much of the season atop the Supporters' Shield standings, only to get passed at the finish line by the Red Bulls.
Almiron, the influential playmaking midfielder, has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and his status for Sunday is questionable. Outside back Chris McCann suffered a left quad strain in a regular-season-ending 4-1 loss at Toronto and will miss at least three weeks.
And then there's the matter of how Atlanta ended the season, with that crushing defeat at Toronto on a day when a draw would have secured a first-ever Supporters' Shield title.
"My role is to help the team see the forest and not just the trees," Martino said Friday through a translator. "The forest is that we had 69 points this season, a record number of away points, 21 wins, the most points over two years, a spot in Concacaf Champions League and scored the most goals this season. That's the positive.
"The negative is Sunday, and no one's hiding that. We didn't play well, but my job is to see the big picture.