April 27, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) is congratulated by Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) after Julian Gressel (24) scored a goal assisted by Leandro Gonzalez (5) during the second half in a MLS soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Atlanta United won 1-0 over the Colorado Rapids. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta United has nothing to lose at NYCFC

In a season already filled with games of importance, Atlanta United will play in yet another when it takes on NYCFC at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday.

If Atlanta United wins, it will cut NYCFC’s four-point lead in the race for first in the MLS Eastern Conference to one with two games remaining.

If Atlanta United loses, it cannot finish in first. Mathematically, it can’t finish lower than third, so second will be what’s remaining to play for.

“... They know they’re going to make a major step if the win against us to secure second place, with Philadelphia still around,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “But if we win it, then everything is on still for the first spot. We know how important it can be to have your home advantage.” 

If Atlanta United draws, it will be tough for it to finish in first, which comes with a bye and home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, but still possible. It would still trail by five points, so it would need to make up that difference. Atlanta United right now does have the first tiebreaker, most wins.

“I don’t expect them to play for a draw,” Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel said. “I think that’s really hard to do to start with. But, we will see how the game shapes up. If it ends up being 0-0, 1-1 where we will try to push at the end, maybe they will think 1-1 will be enough. It depends upon how the game plays out and what situation we find ourselves in.”

Atlanta United will try to win while facing several challenges: it starts with the incredibly small field shoe-horned into Yankee Stadium, a field which plays smaller because one-fifth of it is almost unplayable because it is just patches of turf put down over the baseball’s infield.

“It’s a unique field,” de Boer said. “I haven’t played of course on that pitch, but still what I see from images, it’s a little bit strange. We have to deal with it. A lot of players have already played there. I’m not worried about it. The pitch is not too big, so if we want to press forward we won’t have to track back really that far. It’s like that. It’s especially suitable for them. They’re playing small touch football, and that’s preferable on a field that size. But I think we can do that also.”

Yet another challenge is that Atlanta United will be without two of its Designated Players: Josef Martinez, who suffered a leg injury in Saturday’s win over San Jose, and Ezequiel Barco, who may return from his knee injury to play in this weekend’s game at Montreal.

Martinez leads Atlanta United with 26 goals. Its next most prolific scorers are Gressel, Pity Martinez and Barco, who have four goals each. De Boer said either Brandon Vazquez or Hector Villalba likely will start in place of Josef Martinez. Vazquez has two goals in nine appearances in league play, four goals in U.S. Open Cup play. Villalba has one goal in 17 appearances, but scored seven last season and 13 in 2017. De Boer said he thinks Villalba, who has struggled with injuries this season, can play 60 minutes at his highest pace. 

“If he’s out for one or two games or more games, other players have to step up,” de Boer said Saturday about replacements for Martinez. “That’s what are they training for, you know, to step in, and I warn them every time, every moment, be patient, your chance will come, but then, they have to be ready also.”

NYCFC won’t have much sympathy. It’s been without Heber, its best scorer, for the past four games because of an injury.

In Atlanta United’s favor is its recent history in Yankee Stadium. It battled the Boys in Blue to a 1-1 draw during last year’s regular-season game, and won 1-0 with a goal from Eric Remedi in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“We are just going to have go out there and win,” Gressel said. “What it comes down to is winning a lot of second balls on that field and winning a lot 50-50 battles. We will have to clue in on that, and then I think if we win that we will also win the soccer part of getting a foot on the ball and then being able to open up and find the right spaces. It’s going to be a tough matchup. We don’t have anything to lose. We can go there and get after them. Maybe they are shaking a little bit right now, we will see.” 

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