BRONX, N.Y. — By season's end, it could be remembered as one of the matches that swung the Eastern Conference standings.
Atlanta United vs. New York City FC on Sunday has "big game" written all over it (4 pm ET on ESPN in USA; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
Although NYCFC are technically in third place, they’ve played two fewer games than Atlanta United, who sit one point in front in second, and three fewer games than first-place Philadelphia. When it comes to points per game, NYCFC lead the East at 1.73, with the Union (1.68) and Atlanta (1.63) just behind.
“I think always when Atlanta and NYCFC play, it's one of the best games in MLS,” NYCFC captain Alex Ring said. “It's always been entertaining games and we want to win. We know the situation especially with games in hand.”
This will be the first meeting between the teams since the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, when Atlanta pulled out a pragmatic 1-0 win at Yankee Stadium in the opening leg before a comfortable 3-1 victory at home in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Of course, there was a different manager at the helm for ATLUTD, with different tactics. NYCFC coach Dome Torrent said Atlanta United provide a challenge significantly different than the Cityzens' last four opponents, which makes the preparation on a short turnaround even more difficult.
“I watch many games against Atlanta, but I need to analyze the best way to play against them because they play in the last two months three in the back,” he said. “I need to find the best solution for us.”
While the shape is different, the Five Stripes are in the midst of one of their best runs of form this season. They’ve outscored opponents 10-0 in their last three league wins and defeated Orlando City SC Tuesday to reach the U.S. Open Cup final for the first time. The only loss during that stretch was 4-3 at Supporters’ Shield-leading LAFC.
“My job is to try to find the right way to play against Atlanta,” Torrent said. “But everybody knows Atlanta is a top, top team. They were the champions last year and right now they are in good form.”
NYCFC will be seeking a first win in Atlanta, having lost 3-1 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2017 followed by a scintillating 2-2 draw last April in front of 45,000.
An even bigger crowd is expected Sunday, maybe more in line with the 70,000-plus who packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the playoff game between the teams.
While Ring and many of his teammates know what to expect, this will be Keaton Parks’ first chance to experience the matchday madness that is Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It's gonna be a great matchup away at Atlanta,” he said. “Obviously, they have crazy fans and everything. But every game is important. We take each game as important as the last or the next. We’re going there to get the three points.”