– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — In its last contest before Sunday, one with so much on the line for the nascent franchise, Atlanta United FC blew a chance to make team history in spectacular fashion. They were not in the mood to repeating that error one week later, and their ability to make some amends on Sunday leaves them one step closer to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Midfielder Eric Remedi capped off a dominant first half by scoring off of a rebound and Atlanta United made that goal stand, defeating New York City FC 1-0 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the MLS Cup Playoffs, delivering the franchise its first-ever playoff victory. The second leg, to be played at Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, will be played next Sunday.
Atlanta came into today as the No. 2 seed in the East, but only after missing its chance to wrap up the top spot — and the Supporters’ Shield that would have gone along with it — in an ugly 4-1 away defeat to Toronto FC in the last regular-season game of the year last week, a loss that allowed the New York Red Bulls to overtake it and finish with the most points in the league. Against the other New York City-area team, Atlanta bossed the game, particularly in the first half, when it possessed the ball 56 percent of the time in the first half while frustrating NYCFC’s powerful offensive attack with fouling and consistent physical play.
“That’s the way you have to play every game, regular season or the playoffs, it doesn’t matter,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “That’s the attitude. In the first half, I think we played some really good football. In the second half New York City had a little bit more of the possession.”
In the 37th minute, Atlanta made its dominance count on the scoreboard, as a superb left-footed volley near the top of the penalty area by Josef Martinez off a corner from Julian Gressel was saved by NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, only for Remedi to be first to the rebound at the far post and clumsily slide the ball into the net after nearly whiffing in his first attempt.
New York was better in the second half in possession, but did not create enough gilt-edged chances to seriously threaten Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan, as the Cityzens suffered just their third loss in the last 22 games at Yankee Stadium. All of those defeats have come by 1-0 score lines.
“We need to improve, absolutely,” NYCFC head coach Domènec Torrent. “We need to improve for the next game because they have quality and the first half, we didn’t play well because we didn’t have the connection between the central midfielders and the strikers. We didn’t defend well, the set pieces especially. Every single corner, every single free kick, they could finish. We have to improve because in a semifinal or a final, you have to be focused on that, in every single action.”
There were 22 fouls committed between the two teams in the first half, with Atlanta focusing on making sure to not give freedom to the main attack-minded players for New York, striker David Villa and creative midfielder Maxi Moralez, something the two had much of in NYCFC’s 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round game on Wednesday.
“We talked about [Maxi Moralez] and Villa a lot, obviously,” said Atlanta United center back Michael Parkhurst about limiting Moralez’s influence from midfield. “Their partnership up top is what makes them tick and I thought Eric [Remedi] did a fantastic job on [Moralez], always keeping an eye on him wherever he is. The three of us in the back also were trying to keep an eye on him to make sure that he couldn’t control the game in between the lines. The second half he was on the ball a little bit, but it was further away from our goal, so we can accept that. The guys, especially in the midfield, put a lot of work in, making sure he couldn’t dictate play.”
Atlanta, already with the important away goal, almost sealed the victory in second-half stoppage time when, after a counterattack opportunity seemed to fizzle out, left back Greg Garza sent in a curling effort from the top of the box toward the top corner of the goal that was spectacularly saved by a sprawling Johnson to his left.
There were questions as to the mindset of the Atlanta team coming into the playoffs, having lost its chance at winning the Supporters’ Shield and with Martino recently turning down a two-year extension from the club amidst him likely becoming the next manager of the Mexican national team. Whatever doubt the team brought into the Big Apple was put aside, and now the second-year franchise is 90 minutes away from its first-ever playoff series win and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
“It was a good performance. It was the performance that we needed. It’s the performance that we wanted to have in big games this year and I’m disappointed that we haven’t had,” said Parkhurst. “It’s good that we came out here and we brought the fight.”