The swagger is most certainly back for reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, who look to complete an impressive three-match run Sunday in a critical Eastern Conference matchup at home versus New York City FC.
The Five Stripes (12-3-9) have appeared disjointed at times under first-year coach Frank de Boer, adjusting to the Dutchman’s styles and also incorporating midfielder Pity Martinez as the successor to the departed Miguel Almiron. Martinez and de Boer also have not seen eye-to-eye at multiple points during the season, with the Argentine sometimes cutting a frustrated figure with his coach’s substitution patterns.
But those problems seem behind them as United have made a run at the Eastern Conference lead and enter this weekend in second place, three points behind Philadelphia. Atlanta also has a chance to hold both the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup simultaneously, advancing to the final of the latter after defeating Orlando City 2-0 on the road Tuesday night.
Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman scored on either side of halftime for Atlanta, which will host Minnesota United for the Lamar Hunt trophy Aug. 29. It was Hyndman’s first goal since joining the Five Stripes on loan from English Premier League side Bournemouth.
“It’s never easy to get to a final. It’s a knockout format and that’s never easy,” Hyndman said post-match. “Thankfully we scored the first goal in the first half and could open up a little bit, good thing we got the clincher. It was a really good feeling all around.”
Atlanta also carries a 12-match home unbeaten run (11-1-0) in all competitions into this match and a shutout streak of 360 minutes after thrashing the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-0 on Aug. 3. United benefited from a pair of own goals in the first half before Josef Martinez tied an MLS record by scoring a goal in his ninth consecutive league match, converting a penalty on 72 minutes.
The Venezuela international also accomplished the feat last year, which was originally done by Portland’s Diego Valeri. Martinez has 53 goals in 60 league matches since arriving last year.
New York City FC (10-8-4) can overtake Atlanta for second with a victory and is four points out of first with matches in hand on both the Five Stripes and Philadelphia. The Bronx Blues bounced back from one of their worst losses of the season with a dramatic 3-2 victory over Houston on Wednesday night, getting a late brace from sub Valentin Castellanos in the 83rd and 93rd minutes.
“I said to Taty during halftime–10 minutes in he will play,” coach Dome Torrent said of Castellanos, who is tied for second on the team with seven goals. “I think Taty plays much better when he is a striker. He has this quality. Right now, I am very happy with him because everybody deserves to play, but he showed me in training that he has the desire to play every single game. He is a fighter. This year he has improved a lot.”
Torrent also opted to bring top playmaker and All-Star Maxi Moralez off the bench late in this contest after holding him out of NYCFC’s 3-1 loss at Real Salt Lake last weekend. Moralez, who is tied with Carlos Vela for the league lead with 13 assists, is expected to be restored to the first XI for this matchup.
Atlanta did the double over NYCFC last season and is 3-2-0 in the last five matches after the Bronx Blues won the first meeting between the clubs. Josef Martinez had a brace on either side of halftime in the most recent meeting, a 3-1 victory for United at home in the second leg of the conference semifinals as Atlanta advanced 4-1 on aggregate.
(Josef Martinez photo courtesy Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports)