Atlanta United-NYCFC square off in battle of top clubs
If a mouth-watering 2-2 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was the appetizer, the main course should be served up Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium as New York City FC hosts Atlanta United in a battle of two of Major League Soccer's top teams.
Atlanta United (9-3-2) sits atop the Eastern Conference with the best record in the league, two points ahead of NYCFC (8-3-3), which is 6-0-0 at Yankee Stadium this season after a 3-0 victory over Orlando City SC last Saturday.
The teams are also both atop the league in goals scored, with Atlanta's 30 one more than NYCFC's.
While there are superstars in both teams' attack -- Josef Martinez for the Five Stripes leads MLS with 12 goals, and NYCFC's David Villa is fifth in the Golden Boot race with eight goals -- the strength for both is the variety of options in attack.
NYCFC's Ismael Tajouri-Shradi has seven goals remarkably on just eight shots on frame in his first season. Maxi Moralez has six goals. Both found the back of the net in the victory over Orlando.
Meanwhile, midfielder Miguel Almiron has been Atlanta's secondary scoring threat with six goals and six assists in 14 matches.
In the anticipated first meeting between the teams on April 15, Greg Garza and Villa scored nine minutes apart midway through the first half as the teams went into the locker room level at 1. Chris McCann put the hosts in front in the 56th minute, but Alex Ring equalized with a stunning strike in the 73rd minute to ensure the powerhouses shared the points.
Both teams played U.S. Open Cup fourth-round games on Wednesday, with NYCFC falling to the rival New York Red Bulls 4-0 and Atlanta had a tidy 3-0 victory over the Charleston Battery of the USL.
"I think we have improved a lot since last season," Atlanta coach Tata Martino said Wednesday. "I think last year in this game we made a lot of defensive mistakes that ended up costing us.
"Last year, we had to have Miguel and Josef play a lot of minutes so that we could win. It was important that we could win the game tonight without those guys and give the younger players a chance to do that for us."
As if the game needs more storylines, this could be the final match that Patrick Vieira coaches in New York. There have been rampant rumors from France that he is set to become the next coach of OGC Nice. The latest published report, by RMC Sport, claims a deal is done and Vieira is set to leave after the game against Atlanta.
Vieira didn't deny the report on Thursday but insisted his focus is squarely what he calls a "massive" challenge against Atlanta.
"We're going to play, I believe, against, I have to say, one of the best, if not the best team in this league," Vieira told reporters after training. "We want to win that game and I want players, myself, the football club to focus on that game.
"We're going to have a break after that and it will be important for us to win that game because we will be in front of them and that will be really important for us."
Updated June 7, 2018