New York City FC defeated Atlanta United 2-0 in the first round of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, advancing in the postseason for only the second time in club history. This victory earned NYCFC the right to play the New England Revolution on the plastic grass of Gillette Stadium in the Conference Semifinals on November 30.
More than a win, it was a purification for a club that habitually underachieves in the playoffs.
Most significant, this NYCFC squad finally played to its potential: We saw the composed, cohesive, and technical team supporters were waiting for all season. True, it would have been nice to see more of this quality over the summer, but timing is everything in the MLS cup. A hot hand in November is more important than a few comfortable wins in August.
Make a plan and stick to it
You could see the Football Manager tactics from kickoff: NYCFC went for a high press, letting Atlanta win the possession stats and play the ball out of the back. It was a nervy first half for NYCFC as the defense and midfield sent balls over the top to Taty Castellanos, who couldn’t manage a shot. Meantime, Atlanta was getting clogged up in the middle of the field but displayed flashes of individual brilliance: Ezequiel Barco is good at soccer.
The g+ GameFlow shows how closely matched the two teams were for the first 40’, and how the game shifted just before the end of the first half:
What the g+ GameFlow doesn't show is how NYCFC frustrated Atalanta’s players and eroded their collective confidence. (More on that below.) Both managers stuck with their plans: Atlanta’s Gonzalo Pineda doubled down on possession-based play despite its diminishing returns, while NYCFC’s Ronny Deila saw how the high press was breaking down Atlanta.
Deila got the tactics right.
Chemistry is everything
The NYCFC attack felt dangerous even when it couldn’t get a shot on goal. Part of that came from the charismatic Taty Castellanos: He was regal on the field, a mesmerizing presence who could change the tidal pull of the game just by making a run.
But more than that there was a chemistry between NYCFC players, a closeness among the squad that gave them an edge despite the numbers. Anecdotally, you saw it in the team photo at the start of the game, when the players held up the jersey of the injured Keaton Parks. But you also saw it on the field. There were complex passing sequences, playful runs, and clear lines of communication. Mistakes were forgotten immediately, new attacks pieced together: It was a team that trusted itself. As Manchester pundit Charlie once said, “We played like eleven players who are all best friends!”
The g+ GameFlow points to Atlanta getting back into the game during the last 10’, but it doesn’t show how the agitated Atlanta players were mouthing off and couldn't put together a coherent attack. It was NYCFC, and not Atlanta, that was united.
Castellanos deserved to score the 49’ game-winner, even if the mishit volley-turned-bounce-pass settled into the net more out of confusion than any technical skill. It’s a striker’s goal, one you earn by menacing the defense from the first whistle.
We have come to expect this sort of magic from the Golden Boot winner. More unexpected was the level of quality across a squad depleted by injuries: James Sands completed 94.4% of his passes, Sean Johnson was batting away balls like a cat in a TikTok video, Alfredo Morales gummed up Josef Martìnez, and Malte Amundsen and Santiago Rodríguez had 11 tackles between them—one more than the entire Atlanta squad. The goal of the match came from center-back Alexander Callens, who suffered a recent injury and almost didn’t start. This was a game in which the role players were the stars.
No one embodies that more than Tayvon Gray, who likely would have been on the bench if injuries and a red card forced Deila to reshuffle the midfield. The 19-year-old Bronx native helped shut down Barco and Marcelino Moreno, neutralizing a combined $20 million of Argentine firepower—his 7.06 rating on WhoScored.com was higher than USMNT starter Miles Robinson, European transfer target George Bello, and every other player on Atlanta except for Barco.
Just as important, no NYCFC player made the kind of costly error that has torpedoed games in the past. There was no defensive lapse, no boneheaded foul, no U11-level giveaway.
A playoff win NYCFC fully deserved, and didn't sabotage? We could get used to this.