Atlanta United takes first leg of MLS playoffs against NYCFC

Playing with confidence and with the poise the moment demanded, Atlanta United defeated NYCFC 1-0 on Sunday in the first leg of an MLS Eastern Conference semifinal at Yankee Stadium.

Eric Remedi’s first goal for Atlanta United proved the difference, giving his team a crucial away goal before the teams play the second leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 11. The winner will advance to the Eastern Conference final, where it will play either Columbus or New York Red Bulls.

Looking nothing like the team that lacked intensity in previous important road games at Red Bulls and at Toronto, and showing experience though it was the team’s first playoff game on the road, Atlanta United handled everything in winning the first playoff game in franchise history.

“It was a good performance, it was the performance that we needed, it was the performance that we’ve wanted to have in big games and disappointed that we haven’t had, so it’s good that we came out there and brought the fight,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “It was ugly out there at times, the pitch is tough to play on and you have to win the fight. If we didn’t win the fight, we at least equaled it and that was good.”

The small field proved no problem. Atlanta United came up with a tactic that worked.

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NYCFC’s attack, led by David Villa, was stopped cold in the 50-degree temperatures. Villa took four shots, none on goal. NYCFC didn’t put any of its eight shots on goal.

And Atlanta United kept its cool, something it hasn’t always done this season, even after a Miguel Almiron goal in the first half was called back after the use of replay, and through the more than 30 fouls that were called by referee Kevin Stott.

“That’s the way you have to face every game in the regular season or playoffs, it doesn’t matter” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “The attitude in the first half, we also played some really good football.”

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino chose a 4-3-3 formation to start, with Almiron making his first start in two games after sustaining a strained hamstring, and Greg Garza his first start since suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery in late May.

Martino also decided to change tactics. In the first two games at Yankee Stadium, Atlanta United tried to pass out of the back, which is its norm. Though the team has one loss and one draw, it didn’t play well. On Sunday, Atlanta United eschewed the short passes for the direct long balls down the field. The tactic kept NYCFC from creating turnovers in the field’s final third and relieving consistent pressure on Atlanta United’s defense. Brad Guzan said it may have surprised NYCFC because its opponents think that Atlanta United will try to play out of the back at all cost.

“It was important that we knew when we could play and when we could go long, be more direct and we didn’t care at the end of the day the style of the result,” Guzan said. “We just needed a result.”

Still, NYCFC sent a warning in the 18th minute when Ismael Tajouri-Shradi was played through the middle with a series of one-touch passes. His shot from 14 yards sailed wide of Guzan’s goal.

But Atlanta United struck first with a goal from Almiron in the 21st minute. He slammed a shot into the turf, sending a high, bouncing ball over goalkeeper Sean Johnson and into the net. However, Stott went to review and ruled that Almiron was offside when the ball was played to him by Julian Gressel on the corner kick that started the sequence.

Franco Escobar came close in the 34th minute, stretching out to put a toe on a cross. His shot rolled back across the front of the goal.

Atlanta United scored – and it counted – in the 37th minute when Remedi tapped in a Josef Martinez volley, left-footed shot that Johnson failed to handle cleanly. Martinez’s shot came from a Gressel corner. Martinez was unmarked on the corner. Larentowicz, who also had a chance to touch the ball into the goal, said he told Remedi it was a “golazo.” Remedi lost his voice and couldn’t speak after the game.

Atlanta United wasted a chance to take a 2-0 lead early in the second half when Escobar sent Martinez through with a clearance down the right side. Martinez played a pass across to Hector Villalba, who had come on for Almiron, but he took too much time and his shot was blocked.

“For me, what was even more impressive than the result was our performance,” Guzan said. “And our performance was that in terms of grittiness, fighting, scraping, it was ugly at times and I don’t think we’ve shown, especially in big moments against good teams we haven’t shown that all season.”

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