Sat, 27 Nov 2021

Evenly matched NYCFC, Atlanta United open MLS Cup pursuit

Field Level Media
21 Nov 2021, 06:40 GMT+10

New York City FC will be looking for their first MLS Cup Playoff victory since 2018 on Sunday when they host an Atlanta United side that needed a second-half surge to reach the postseason.

NYCFC (14-11-9, 51 points) gutted out a 1-1 home draw against the Philadelphia Union on the final day of the season despite going down a man early.

Valentin Castellanos scored eight minutes after halftime to bring his MLS Golden Boot-winning total to 19, and NYCFC preserved the point that sealed the No. 4 seed.

New York finished level on points with No. 5 seed Atlanta and No. 6 seed Orlando, but ahead on the first tiebreaker of total wins.

NYCFC will be shorthanded Sunday. Midfielder Gedion Zelalem will be serving a red card suspension, compounding the season-ending surgery for midfielder Keaton Parks and the loss of defender Anton Tinnerholm to an Achilles injury suffered last month.

But center back Alexander Callens is considered likely to play after a muscle injury saw him return early from international duty with Peru.

Manager Ronny Deila downplayed NYCFC's injury issues.

"I know that everybody will give me what I want," he said. "And the togetherness and team spirit is really, really strong. We have so many times this year, different players ... they've come on and have done a good job of how they are impacting the game."

That Atlanta (13-9-12, 51 points) finished even on points with NYCFC is an enormous testament to the work the players have done since parting with previous manager Gabriel Heinze 13 games into the season.

Josef Martinez has scored 10 of his team-leading 12 goals since Heinze departed, and Atlanta has lost only two of its past 18 league matches.

And there's a needed feeling of stability under new manager Gonzalo Pineda. Club technical director Carlos Bocanegra also inked an extension this week.

But for a team that won two major domestic trophies in its first three seasons, being an underdog this early in the postseason is still uncomfortable.

"We've had some success, we've had some failures and had some struggles. But I think this is part of it," Bocanegra said this week. "And you know, it's been five years now. We're back in the playoffs. We still have lofty ambitions. We want to compete for championships every year."

--Field Level Media

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