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Atlanta United contained NYCFC’s Villa, Moralez - and will need to again

David Villa had yet to play 90 minutes and not put a shot on goal this season.

That was until Atlanta United’s defense forced the shutout in last week’s 1-0 win in the first leg of a MLS Eastern Conference semifinal playoff game.

That’s not all.

Atlanta United’s defense, using a three-man backline and two defensive midfielders, also held influential midfielder Maxi Moralez without a shot. That was just the fourth time that has happened to him this season.

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The Five Stripes may not have to be as stingy in Sunday’s second and final leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but the team is going to try to once again frustrate Villa, who has 77 goals in 117 MLS appearances, and Moralez, who has 13 goals and 25 assists in 61 appearances in MLS appearances.

“Those are the two that really make them go offensively,” midfielder/centerback Jeff Larentowicz said. “Being in tune, knowing here they are. There are three of us. There are two of them. We should be in good shape.”

Larentowicz said that the players know that Villa, who has 14 goals this season, and Moralez, who has eight goals and 16 assists this season, like to use the space between the back line and midfielders. When they do get close to a defender, they like to play off their shoulder, which can make them difficult to see and track, or make a run behind the defender.

“We studied everything about New York City,” fullback Franco Escobar said.

Larentowicz said it was tough to mark Villa and Moralez in the first half, but he thought they did a better job in the second half.

Not known as a dirty player and not fouled in the game, Villa cut a frustrated figure at Yankee Stadium. 

At one point, he hit Larentowicz near the face with an elbow while referee Kevin Stott was looking the other way down the field. Larentowicz said Villa didn’t hit him in the face, but it appears there was contact to Larentowicz’s head. There are GIFs of the incident on twitter. The MLS Disciplinary Committee could hand down retroactive punishment for the play. Those decisions are typically announced on Fridays.

At another point, Villa went studs up into Greg Garza’s side while attempting to reach a cross that he wasn’t going to get close to. 

Villa didn’t receive a yellow or red card for either incident.

Moralez was fouled a game-high six times and still created three chances. New York City was held without a shot on goal at home for the first time this season.

“Their partnership up top is what makes them tick and I thought Eric (Remedi) did a fantastic job on him, always keeping an eye on him wherever he is,” Michael Parkhurst said of Moralez. The three of us in the back also were trying to keep an eye on him to make sure that he couldn’t control the game in between the lines. he guys, especially in the midfield, put a lot of work in, making sure he couldn’t dictate play.”

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