To correct a rough run of form, there's nothing like the chance to play for a trophy.
That's the opportunity before New York City FC as they prepare to host the 2022 Campeones Cup against Liga MX's Atlas FC at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday evening (7:30 pm ET | Univision, ESPN2) – allowing the reigning champs from bordering top-flight leagues to square off with silverware on the line.
Ahead of the match, NYCFC have endured a five-game winless run in league play, making Wednesday's fixture an ideal chance to shift momentum against an Atlas side facing a similar situation. The Mexican club is currently 17th on the 18-team Liga MX table, with four losses in their last five matches.
"This is a great opportunity for us," NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing said on Monday. "It’s back at Yankee Stadium, our home, it's in front of our home fans and it’s a reset, a different competition, a good opportunity for us to take our focus away from the league in this moment and play for a trophy, a trophy we earned the opportunity last year to play for.
"But we know it’s going to be incredibly difficult. We know that Atlas are a good team. Maybe people will perceive they’re not in form because of the results, but it’s a one-off game so both teams are going to be incredibly motivated to take the trophy."
The opportunity to course-correct comes at an ideal time for NYCFC, with three games remaining in the defending MLS Cup champion's 2022 season. NYCFC are still fourth in the Eastern Conference standings with 46 points from 31 matches (13W-11L-7D) even with the winless run, but their grasp on that spot – and a home Audi MLS Cup Playoffs game – will only get increasingly tenuous with each point dropped.
After Wednesday's one-off clash, a massive New York Derby arrives Saturday at home against the New York Red Bulls as part of Week 32 (1 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). But they're not looking too far ahead to facing an arch-rival who's third in the East.
"For me, both games are incredibly important," Cushing said. "This opportunity to win this trophy for our club is important because we earned it last year, the opportunity to get a win in a period where we haven’t won games, even though we feel we should have more points and we’ve played well enough to get more points. This can be the catalyst for us going into a Red Bull derby and into the end of the season."
There's also the matter of bragging rights from the winner-take-all event, which has been played every year since 2018, save for the 2020 edition being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. MLS clubs have won two of the three iterations thus far, with Atlanta United defeating Club America in 2019 and the Columbus Crew emerging victorious over Cruz Azul in 2021. Toronto FC lost to Tigres UANL in 2018.
Atlas, led by Liga MX All-Stars coach Diego Cocca, feature former D.C. United Designated Player Edison Flores. Star forward Julio Furch, left back Luis Reyes and goalkeeper Camilo Vargas are among other key players who joined Liga MX's best this summer in Minnesota, losing 2-1 to the MLS All-Stars.
And the game, aside from respective league pursuits, comes amid a year where Seattle Sounders FC beat Liga MX's Pumas UNAM for a historic Concacaf Champions League title. That result, plus with a revamped Leagues Cup arriving in 2023, offers increased stakes.
"One thing I will say is they’re incredibly difficult games because the level across in Mexico is very, very high," Cushing said, praising the back-to-back Liga MX winners. "We’ve planned for a difficult game, but it’s a really exciting game for us because of the nature of what the game is – two teams, champions of respective leagues going head to head for this trophy. We’re excited for the game."
To reach this stage, NYCFC won MLS Cup 2021 in penalty kicks over the Portland Timbers, their first-ever trophy. And while struggles have arisen after head coach Ronny Deila departed for Belgium's Standard Liège and forward Taty Castellanos got loaned to LaLiga's Girona this summer, Cushing believes their quality will surface soon enough.
"The aim and expectation for our football club has always been to win trophies, and any opportunity we get to win a trophy we have a huge desire to make sure we do that," Cushing said. "Tomorrow is no different. It’s a final, a final where we can be the overall champions of Mexico and the United States, and we have a huge desire and a huge hunger to make sure we win this trophy."