On Sunday afternoon, the mix of nerves and excitement filled Yankee Stadium as New York City FC faced Atlanta United FC in their first playoff game of 2021. Ideally, the home advantage for the Bronx Blues would help lead them to a win. However, the playoff curse that plagued NYCFC was undoubtedly on the mind of fans, for the team had only won two of nine games in the playoffs through 2020.
Additionally, the Pigeons are without Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm for the playoffs, and Nicolás Acevedo was still not at match fitness. Players like Alfredo Morales had to step up, and Valentín Castellanos had to continue his goalscoring run.
Despite the curse, NYCFC were finally able to win for the first time since 2018. They beat Atlanta 2-0, even though the fixture was far from perfect.
In the first half, NYCFC did not play well offensively. There were too many giveaways, and the team struggled to regain possession. In fact, Atlanta held the Pigeons to under 40% of the possession in the first 45 minutes. When they did have possession, there was a visible lack of service on the wings by Malte Amundsen and Tayvon Gray.
After a slow start, New York City FC won 2-0 to move on in the MLS playoffs
It was not until the end of the first half that New York City FC began to wake up. They finally got their first shot in the 39th minute, and that was all it took to get a few attacking sequences going. There was even a close offside goal for Santiago Rodríguez in the 44th minute.
But it was the second half where NYCFC came out to play. Of course, it was Castellanos who broke the deadlock in the 49th minute. After taking a short corner kick, Maxi Moralez immediately received the ball again, picking out the younger Argentine, and sweeping the ball to him. With an awkward swing of his right leg, Castellanos made contact and kicked the ball toward goal. It looked like the ball was just going to miss, but instead, at the top right corner, it fell into the goal.
Another short corner kick, taken by Jesús Medina, led to the second goal in the 53rd minute. The Paraguayan sent the ball to Rodríguez, who then passed the ball to Moralez. The veteran midfielder took a shot from within the right side of the box, and Brad Guzan made the save initially. But Alexander Callens, who was originally questionable due to an injury, and had been strong defensively all game, was right there. He headed the ball into the back of the net with ease, for nobody was in front of him.
Whereas the goals will clearly be the story of the match, it was the defense that shone. Center-backs Callens and Maxime Chanot continued to make critical clearances in the box, and the team overall limited Atlanta’s chances. Captain Sean Johnson also had four saves, including the critical save in the 87th minute. Alan Franco attempted a header from a corner kick that would have given his side some life, but Johnson was able to fall to his left and get the stop.
Again, the match was not perfect, but it only took a few minutes to put NYCFC on top. Atlanta still led with the possession, but the second half was a more even battle. Still, NYCFC led with 13 shots and five on target, out shooting their opponents. In the end, the Pigeons were able to hold on to the 2-0 margin, and finally have that third playoff win.
Some concerns heading into the next round
While it was not perfect, New York City FC evidently got the job done. The most bothersome aspect of the fixture was probably that Ronny Deila did not make a change until the 85th minute. Otherwise, the lack of possession did not matter, for they got the two goals.
Yet, there are some concerns as NYCFC heads into the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New England Revolution. For starters, both Morales and Chanot needed extended treatment after the game against Atlanta ended. Both received knocks in the final minutes, and the majority of the concern is about Morales, for there is no guarantee Acevedo will be ready to start a match.
Another concern is regarding Amundsen. The left-back has been the starter since Gudmundur Thórarinsson was out injured, and started in Sunday’s fixture. Truthfully, Amundsen has improved in the last couple of months in the attack, and both left-backs are strong defensively. But the issue at hand is simple: Amundsen is not always consistent, and that was seen in the first half against Atlanta. Meanwhile, Thórarinsson has been consistent all season, and is always a threat in the attacking third.
With that being said, Deila should start Thórarinsson against New England. He is healthy, for he played both matches for Iceland during the international break. Plus, he can take set pieces, and his service into the box is still superior compared to Amundsen.
Finally, the major concern is that the Pigeons are playing away from home. During the regular season, NYCFC had a poor away record, winning just four matches. Some may argue most of the sides in the Eastern Conference had a similar win record when away, but NYCFC also lost eight times too.
Beating New England will be a challenging goal for New York City FC. For now, the team can at least relish in the fact they won a playoff game. The playoff curse still lingers though, and maybe the Pigeons will find a way to get another win.