November 4th – Bronx, NY – Coming into the 1st leg of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals between NYCFC and Atlanta United, NYCFC was confident in their ability to win at home with a 12W-4T-1L Regular Season record at Yankee Stadium, and a playoff victory just 4 days earlier vs Philadelphia. Atlanta were coming in frustrated after they squandered their opportunity to win the Supporter’s Shield (Best Regular Season Record Trophy) after losing big in the final week of the season to Toronto FC.
In the 21st minute, Atlanta looked like they opened the scoring on a nice set piece routine that fell to Miguel Almiron who chopped the ball on a bounce over the jumping Sean Johnson and into the back of the net. Atlanta celebrated like they had just won the Cup final, but the referee wouldn’t allow play to restart due to his assistant referee telling him he should take a look at the VAR. After a few minutes, the ref came back out and ruled the goal off for offside.
Just 10 minutes later, Franco Escobar was inches away from giving Atlanta United the lead but the bad luck continued. He reached out fully stretched and got a toe on the ball but it went just wide to Johnson’s right and out for a corner.
United would be rewarded in the 37th minute though for all their hard work on another nice play from a set piece. Julian Gressel swung in a quick cross that found the foot of the MLS Single Season Goal Record Scorer Josef Martinez’s left foot and he struck the ball perfectly with power and accuracy but Johnson reached down and made a wonderful save. He couldn’t clear the ball fully though, and Atlanta’s Eric Remedi swooped in to tap in the rebound and give the visitors a crucial Road Goal and a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
Miguel Almiron was subbed off for the visitors at halftime for Hector Villalba, and the hosts surely thought they could exploit the gap in attacking midfield in the final 45 minutes. Villalba though is no scrub, and has been a fantastic player for United over the last two seasons.
NYCFC did not make many chances in the second half, and it was pretty evident to the fans that they didn’t have enough left in the tank to push forward and score the much needed equalizer. This was City’s 4th match in 10 days, and since Coach Dome Torrent mostly plays with the same starting 11 always, the players were far from their fittest for the most important match of the year.
In the 91st minute, Atlanta had a chance to put the tie mostly to bed with a second road goal, but City made a last ditch effort to defend and kept the scoreline at 1-0. The inevitable 2018 MLS MVP Josef Martinez sprinted down the middle of the Yankee Stadium pitch in behind the final defender and 1-on-1 with the goalkeeper. Defender Maxime Chanot somehow chased the MVP all the way down and forced him to take a contested effort on goal which was saved by Sean Johnson to preserve the hope in the NYCFC faithful. The rebound though came back to Martinez who slotted a slow ball for Greg Garza who struck the ball well towards the top corner and forced another spectacular diving save from Johnson right in front of the NYCFC supporter’s section.
After the final whistle blew, it seemed NYCFC were happy about not being down 2 or 3-0, but it will be a tough task to go to the sold out Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and get a positive result. If City are leading 1-0 on the road on Sunday after 90 minutes, the match will go to extra time, but if City can do the unthinkable and win on Sunday 2-1, they will go through to the Conference Finals on the Away Goals tiebreaker.
The home fans were sad to watch their team lose for only the second time this season, but after being down 4-1 to Columbus in the 1st leg last year and then winning 2-0 in the second leg to just miss out on the next round, they know that same result this season would be enough to push them through. There is also talk that this might have been Captain David Villa’s last ever home match for NYCFC, which gives the team even more incentive to win vs Atlanta and give him at least one more match in front of the New York City crowd.
– Chris Fichtel, PureSportsNY
Sunday, November 11th – @ Atlanta United (Time TBA)
(2nd leg of Eastern Conference Finals)
(Photo Credit: NYCFC)