Optimists will point to NYCFC’s electric start as a sign that they’re near unbeatable. Despite being without David Villa and Alex Ring for the better part of four games, the squad has managed to find consistent scoring and maintain their solid defensive play. Patrick Vieira and company have been nothing short of exceptional so far.
Pessimists will look at Atlanta United as a buzzsaw that is destined to be the team that knocks NYCFC off of their perch. They have arguably the two best offensive talents in MLS in attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron and striker Josef Martinez, a world-class and experienced manager in Tata Martino, and one of (if not the) toughest home environments in the league. Throw in the likely debut of 19-year-old MLS record signing Ezequiel Barco, and the relative newboys seem as complete a side as there is.
A win would do wonders for NYCFC’s image around the league, while a loss would bring up questions regarding how they compare against the best in MLS. If Vieira and the rest of the Boys in Blue focus on these tactical points, they should leave Atlanta with three points in hand.
- Line Up Like This
4-3-3: Johnson; Sweat, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm; Herrera, Ring, Moralez; Tajorui-Shradi, Medina, Villa
Bench: Stuver, Mataritta, Ibeagha, Ofori, McNamara, Wallace, Berget
It looks as if NYCFC will have all the pieces of their usual starting XI healthy for this clash. As it pertains to the evergreen left-back debate, Ben Sweat gets the nod over Ronald Matarrita. Sweat is a better defender than the forward-minded Matarrita, and should get the not to help better quell the vicious Atlanta attack. The usual suspects in goal (Sean Johnson), and center back (Alex Callens, Maxime Chanot) return, as does Sebastien Ibeagha over Cedric Hountondji on the bench.
Alex Ring is finally healthy, and looked his usual self in limited action against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday. Yangel Herrera looks to have finally shaken off the rust, and will be essential in stopping Martinez, his Venezuelan compatriot. Maxi Moralez — who has been on fire lately — returns to his attacking midfield role. Despite extremely poor play in his first three matches, Ebenezer Ofori was great against RSL, scoring his first NYCFC goal (though it looked like my grandmother could have chipped in an assist against RSL on Wednesday). However, Ring’s returns lands Ofori on the bench.
David Villa looked iffy against RSL, but should be back to the Spanish legend we all know and love on Sunday. Ismael Tajorui-Shradi and Jesus Medina are again the wings. With both of them being able to play very well on either flank, NYCFC’s attack has become that much more malleable and effective. Jo Inge Berget is on the bench after opening his account last week, as is Rodney Wallace. Wallace’s inclusion casts some doubt over what Jonathan Lewis’ immediate future at NYCFC looks like.
2. Force Josef Martinez to play with the ball at his feet
The title of best striker has the lifespan of a mayfly. Every week, it’s someone different. But for my money, it’s Josef Martinez of Atlanta. He’s fast, strong in the air, and ruthless in front of goal. However, the key to NYCFC’s defense this week may be letting him handle the ball more.
Martinez gets progressively better the closer he gets to the net. Most of his 24 goals in 25 MLS games have come inside the 18-yard box, with a good chunk coming in the 6-yard box. His maneuverability inside the box is truly impressive, and can entice overly-physical defenses to clip him down, awarding Atlanta a penalty. Their three penalties lead MLS to this point.
Giving Martinez the ball close to goal is a death sentence. Letting Miguel Almiron — as talented a young player at his position as MLS has ever seen — orchestrate the run-up to that is jumping in the coffin to help Atlanta out. NYCFC’s defense needs to force Martinez onto the ball in the middle third and outside of the box. He’s fast, but not overly technical. If Almiron, Barco, or Tito Villalba is to be given more room on the wings because of it, so be it. All of Atlanta’s bells and whistles going forward are meant to get Martinez the ball in the box. Cutting him off is a necessity for NYCFC.
3. Clinical finishing will be needed to exploit an uber-aggressive Atlanta side
Atlanta is a team that can put a crooked number up on the scoreboard any given gameday. However, their defense was such that other teams were just as capable. But they have made exceptional strides in this area. The addition of a complete midfielder like Darlington Nagbe coupled with Martino’s switch to an aggressive 3-4-1-2 formation with wingbacks has made Atlanta, save for their opener, a solid defensive club.
Looking at their Opening Day catastrophe wherein they lost 4-0 to the Houston Dynamo, a blueprint for taking them down was created. While little things, like an emphasis on short passing, playing up tempo, and being useful with set pieces are useful arrows to have in one’s quiver, the main way to beat them is to use their aggressiveness to find easy shots close to goal and finish at a clinical rate.
While complaining about a team’s finishing in a 4-0 win sounds odd, NYCFC’s second half showed some cause for concern. City could have easily scored 6 or 7 goals on Wednesday had players like Maxi Moralez or David Villa converted what would normally be easy opportunites. They seemed more rushed and frantic. And a very quick, athletic Atlanta side, could force the Blues into similar situations where a lack of composure and poise could be their downfall. Needless to say, they’re gonna need to make the best of their chances against ATL.
Jesus Medina has been nothing short of excellent so far, but can be a little wasteful with some of his chances. Villa was spraying shots all very the park on Wednesday. Even Ismael Tajorui-Shradi, who is white hot, missed some makeable chances. Their attack can’t be wasteful with their chances, because Atlanta isn’t going to be wasteful with theirs.
4. Don’t make any major mistakes early on. Try to take the crowd out of it.
While ingraining a team into a community and attracting a fanbase can be difficult and take years, Atlanta has certainly bucked that trend. Not only do the play in a bajillion-dollar NFL-quality stadium, but they sell out most home games. Some crowds are in capacities upwards of 70,000.
This may shock longtime readers, but I am not an architect (Gasp!). However, it doesn’t take Frank Lloyd Wright to tell you that Mercedes-Benz Stadium is designed to make life hell for visiting teams. The bowl shape reverberates noise directly down onto the field, making it deafening and shocking for opposing players upon first entry.
While NYCFC have played in front of crowds of 15,000 outside, playing against a sold-out football stadium full of great fans poses a real threat. If they make miscues early that let the crowd become a factor in the game, it could serve as a death knell. Whoever scores first may end up taking this game, as coming back against a quality Atlanta side in that environment seems near impossible. Winning (or not losing) the first 15 or so minutes will be vital in NYCFC’s quest for their 6th win.
What do you think NYCFC should do? Let us know in the comments!