Dinged-up NYCFC likely get Alexander Callens back for Atlanta playoff game

Alex Callens

Supporters of shorthanded New York City FC got some good injury news Friday, when manager Ronny Deila revealed there is a "big chance" Peru center back Alexander Callens will play in Sunday's home Eastern Conference Round One clash against Atlanta United in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes).

Callens returned early from international duty with Peru after sustaining a reported muscle injury in their 3-0 win over Bolivia a week ago.

He was one of five Cityzens to serve through at least part of November's World Cup Qualifying window, including James Sands' late call into the United States camp before Tuesday's qualifier in Jamaica.

And while it previously appeared like that call-up might cost NYCFC one of their best defenders for a match where they already face injury woes, Deila indicated otherwise.

"It’s a good thing that we have a lot of national team players. That says something about the quality of the squad and also about the way we work, so that’s the life of a coach who has a good team," Deila said at his pre-match press availability. "But of course we want everybody to be healthy and to be ready to play. And I’m quite confident that Callens will be ready."

Callens' likely return provides a boost to a backline that's already without right back Anton Tinnerholm, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in October.

The picture is less rosy in midfield, with Gedion Zelalem's red card suspension compounding the loss of Keaton Parks after surgery to remove a blood clot from his lower right leg.

However, Deila was not having the suggestion that those absences would make NYCFC less able to dictate terms in the center of the park.

"That’s never been any problem," Deila said. "We’ve had injuries the whole season. For me, we’re going to have 11 on the whole pitch. Throughout the whole season, everybody is going to get the chance. And they are ready to play whoever is going to play in there.

"I know that everybody will give me what I want. 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."

This will be NYCFC's first postseason contest since a remarkable clash at Orlando City SC in 2020, one where Orlando goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was sent off mid-shootout for his second yellow card offense after encroaching from his line to make a save.

NYCFC were eventually sent home after center back-turned-goalkeeper Rodrigo Schlegel saved Gudmundur Thorarinsson to help decide the tiebreak in Orlando's favor. Orlando were also reduced to 10 men earlier when Ruan was sent off for violent conduct, and Deila had to remove Tinnerholm moments before the end of regulation time with an adductor injury.

Naturally, the Cityzens are hoping for safer passage to the Conference Semifinals. If they win, a test against the Supporters' Shield-winning New England Revolution awaits on Nov. 30 at Gillette Stadium.

"I know that you have to be ready for the unexpected for sure," Deila said of lessons learned from that experience. "Hopefully we don’t get the drama of that with so many decisions from referees and other things. … There was a lot of things going on there. But we’re ready. We know what we are playing for and what we want, and just the experience last year I think makes us even more prepared for what is coming."