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Atlanta United vs. NYCFC: 3 questions

Atlanta United will face NYCFC on Sunday in the first leg of a two-legged Eastern Conference semifinal in the MLS playoffs. The return game will be Nov. 11 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The teams drew 2-2 and 1-1 in their previous two meetings this season.

Michael Lewis (@soccerwriter) answered three questions about Sunday’s game.

Q: It appears that NYCFC has found its groove after struggling for the previous few weeks. What's been the cause? 

A: Several key players have returned from injuries and have gotten healthy, including defensive midfielder Yangel Herrera, team captain and striker David Villa (who had been in and out of the lineup this summer), midfielder-forward Jesus Media and center back Alex Callens. While two wins against the Philadelphia Union do not a an MLS Cup make, the pair of 3-1 victories (regular season finale and knockout-round match) has restored the team's confidence and mojo. Maxi Moralez was outstanding Wednesday night. If healthy and fit, he could be devastating as a creative midfielder. He might be only 5-3 and 115-lbs. and looks like another fan, but he is one of the best playmaking midfielders in the league.

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 Q: To win, or even compete, on the small pitch at Yankee Stadium, what must a team do well?

A: If teams are going to build up from the back, they must be aware of how narrow the field is. NYCFC discovered it the hard way against the New York Red Bulls in a 7-0 home demolition in 2016, in which the visitors' press turned simple NYCFC passes into interceptions and goals. Since then and especially under head coach Domenec Torrent (since he took over from the departed Patrick Vieira in June), City has gone much more direct from the back. Teams with outstanding wing players will have difficulty on the flanks. In other words, claustrophic teams and players will have difficulty. Sometimes it is better to play a little more direct at Yankee Stadium, not always, but just to mix things up and keep NYCFC on its toes. 

Q: What is the matchup to watch and how do you think it will go? 

A: Like many soccer games/playoff series, many times it comes down to the midfield. While Maxi Moralez had a fabulous game for NYCFC. The key to the team's ultimate success in the playoffs could come down to its holding midfielders, Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera. Ring is one of the most underrated players in the league. He takes no prisoners, making life miserable for opposing midfielders and attacking players. Yangel Herrera, who is on loan from Manchester City and should be playing regularly in Europe, recently came back from an injury that had sidelined him for five months. He is a ball-winner who can get forward and do some damage. So, the matchup to watch will be Ring and Herrera vs. Miguel Almiron (if healthy), Darlington Nagbe and anyone else who comes across their paths Sunday. Let's face it, NYCFC needs to win its home game to have a chance of defeating Atlanta next Sunday.

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