BRONX, N.Y. — They are healthy, they have momentum and they will again be at home on Sunday.
Fresh off a convincing 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, New York City FC quickly turned the page on Wednesday night and shifted their focus on high-flying Atlanta, their opponent in the Eastern Conference Semifinals beginning at Yankee Stadium on Sunday (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN, TVAS).
“We are confident at home. For me, in my opinion, it’s much better to play at home against Atlanta,” David Villa said. “Now, Atlanta is an amazing team, they did very well all of the season, but when we played against them, we hurt them a lot in some moments. They did as well against us and I believe that on Sunday we’ll be ready to take a good result for going to Atlanta with confidence.”
This is the third consecutive year NYCFC are in the Conference Semifinals, but unlike the previous two, they open the two-legged series at home after winning a midweek Knockout Round game.
Two years ago, Toronto FC took the momentum from a Knockout Round win over the Union to get a critical 2-0 win at BMO Field in the first leg before cruising in the second leg in the Bronx. Last year, Columbus Crew SC, buoyed by advancing in a penalty-kick shootout against Atlanta United, took it to NYCFC to the tune of a 4-1 thumping at MAPFRE Stadium before holding on for dear life in the second leg at Yankee Stadium.
This time around, though, NYCFC are the team coming off a Knockout Round win and at home in the opening leg.
“I think it’s good. We have good momentum,” Alex Ring said. “Atlanta hasn’t played for a week now. I remember last year when we didn’t play the week it was hard to get into the game in Columbus when they played before us.”
Nothing separated New York City FC and Atlanta United in a pair of anticipated regular-season meetings this year. In a thrilling, attacking match played at a breakneck pace, the sides drew 2-2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on April 15 with Villa and Ring providing equalizers after Greg Garza and Chris McCann gave the Five Stripes leads in each half.
When the scene shifted to the Bronx in June for what proved to be Patrick Vieira’s final match as NYCFC coach, it was another stalemate, but the 1-1 draw was heavily tilted in New York City's favor. NYCFC dominated shots (25-5), corner kicks (13-1) and possession (60.6-39.4), but only managed a share of the points courtesy of an Alex Callens second-half leveler after Josef Martinez put Atlanta in front early in the second half.
“They had a great season, they were pretty much battling with the Red Bulls for the Shield throughout the entire second half of the season,” Maxi Moralez said through a translator. “We know who we face in Atlanta and they definitely know who they face in us, especially with us being at home for the first leg.”
Considering how drastically different NYCFC’s form is at home (13-1-4) vs. on the road (4-9-4), it's vital for them to get a positive result at Yankee Stadium on Sunday before the series shifts to Atlanta on Nov. 11.
“We’re feeling we are in a good shape, especially at home,” Anton Tinnerholm said. “No opponent wants to come here and play against us. I think it’s a nightmare for the opponents to come here. We’re going to use that for our advantage.”
Plus, NYCFC, which scored six goals in back-to-back wins over the Union, want to keep the momentum train rolling, even if it is mighty Atlanta standing on the tracks.
“In this round of the playoffs, it's important to push them first,” Villa said. “We need a good result Sunday, not only because we struggle away, but for confidence, to advance in the two games we know it’s a game of 180 minutes. But for our fans, for us and for everything it’s important to get a good result on Sunday.”