May 12, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer and midfielder Julian Gressel celebrate a 1-0 victory over Orlando City in a MLS soccer match on Sunday, May 12, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United vs. NYCFC: ‘It’s a big game’

Atlanta United needs to defeat NYCFC on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first of their two remaining meetings for two reasons:

First, the Five Stripes are one point ahead of NYCFC in the standings, but have played two more games. A loss by Atlanta United and NYCFC will jump over them into second place and can extend that lead with those two games in hand.

“If we can put them six points behind, it would be fantastic,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said.  “We have to play them in New York still and they have two games in advantage still. Hopefully we can make that gap and give us a little bit of air.”

Second, the teams will meet again Sept. 25 on the tiny pitch at Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC is 6-1-4 this season. Though Atlanta United defeated NYCFC in Yankee Stadium in the playoffs last year, it’s no guarantee that it can do so again.

“That’s a very small pitch,” de Boer said. “One part of the field they just lay down the grass. They are used to playing there. They are very good on it. We have to try to stretch them out. We have that advantage at home. We have to take that advantage.”

Sunday’s winner will apply even more pressure on first-place Philadelphia, which leads Atlanta United by three points but has won just two of its past five games.

The teams are coming in with confidence.

Despite playing without leading scorer Josef Martinez, Atlanta United won at Orlando 2-0 on Tuesday in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Atlanta United declined to say Saturday whether Martinez, who didn’t make the trip to Florida because of an injured adductor, will be available to play Sunday.

Since switching to a 3-5-2 formation, Atlanta United is 4-1 with 15 goals scored, four allowed and four shutouts.

NYCFC defeated Houston 3-2 on Thursday at Yankee Stadium on a goal by Valentin Castellanos in the third minute of stoppage time. The team has won three of its past four after a two-game losing skid.

“New York is a very good team,” de Boer said. “They have quality players. It’s a team that we have count on for MLS Cup. They’ve lost one or two games the whole season. They are very solid and the quality during game is a very high standard.”

Defending NYCFC is difficult because, unlike Atlanta United with Martinez, who leads the team with 18 goals and has scored in nine consecutive league games, the Boys in Blue don’t have a bona fide scorer. Heber leads the team with nine of its 40 goals. Six players have scored at least four goals. While the goals come from all over the field, the assists do not. Maxi Moralez leads MLS with 13 assists. 

Atlanta United centerback Miles Robinson said NYCFC’s goals by committee doesn’t change his approach. after spending the past two games dominating Orlando’s Dom Dwyer and the L.A. Galaxy’s Uriel Antuna.

“It’s a big game,” Robinson said. “It should be a big one. I think we are ready for it. We are eager.” 

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