The hosts New York City FC begin their search for a first MLS Cup with a tricky playoff tie against Atlanta United, the 2018 winners (3pm ET Sunday; TV: Live on ESPN Deportes, ABC, ESPN3). Can they do what they did earlier in the campaign and beat the Five Stripes on home soil? Read on to find out with this preview, betting picks and predictions.
A wobble in September meant that NYCFC went from looking assured of a place in the postseason to a side that flirted with dropping out of the all-important top seven. Some promising late-campaign form meant that Ronny Deila’s men, who won three of their last four, comfortably reached the play-offs, finishing the regular season in fourth place in the east.
Sunday’s visitors also had to pull something out of the bag late in the day after an up and down season. For much of the campaign, Gonzalo Pineda’s men looked as though they may miss out, but once the fall hit, the Five Stripes picked up the pace, winning four out of five in September. They followed up by being undefeated in their final six MLS fixtures. Such a run of form meant that Atlanta United finished the regular season in fifth position, level on points with their hosts here.
One of the best at home
Throughout the regular campaign, Deila’s men were very strong on their own patch. They only lost three out of 17 at Yankee Stadium, winning ten of the other 14, scoring a pleasing 37 goals in the process. In fact, they were top dogs in terms of goals scored at home in the east, while they also had an impressive defensive record, shipping an average of just 0.76. Only two teams in the east conceded fewer home goals than NYCFC, who kept a conference-best of nine clean sheets on home soil.
Wins few and far between on the road
For Atlanta United, playing away from home didn’t exactly bring an abundance of joy during the regular season. The Five Stripes won only four out of 17 away from the comforts of home. They did avoid defeat on several occasions, losing six times, which was better than all but three of the other 13 Eastern Conference teams, so it wasn’t all bad, though the fact that winning on the road was something that they struggled to do doesn’t exactly bode well ahead of a trip to face one of the more frequent home winners that the division has to offer.
During the regular season, New York City and Atlanta United locked horns on two occasions. Initially, back in June, the pair met at this venue, where the hosts won by a goal to nil. All in all, it was a convincing display from the team that ended the regular season with the third-best home record in the Eastern Conference, as they easily bettered their opponents in terms of shots and shots on target. The Five Stripes did redeem themselves somewhat when the teams went head-to-head again in October. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they left the field locked at 1-1 after Gudmundur Thorarinsson levelled for NYCFC in the 90th minute, following a first-half opener from Atlanta’s Marcelino Moreno. On that occasion, things were more even, and a tie was probably a fair result.
Hosts to get it done
Form often goes out the window in the play-offs and it can very easily boil down to who deals with the pressure of knock-out football on the day. That is something that the Five Stripes did supremely well back in 2018, but they are a different outfit now. How strong NYCFC were at home during the regular campaign is hard to ignore.
At the current betting odds, a home win appeals. Not only did the hosts have the third-best home record in the east in terms of points accumulated, and not only were they the top scorers at home in the east, notching an average of 2.17 per 90 minutes at Yankee Stadium, but they were by far the best team in the division when it came to expected goal difference, boasting a hugely impressive average xG difference of +1.22. Such a number tells us that Sunday’s hosts create considerably more than they surrender.
The same cannot be said for the visitors, who struggled in terms of delivering more in the final third than their opponents when playing away from home. In 17 travelling matches, the Five Stripes scored 20 and conceded 23, while they posted a modest 19.7 xG, allowing 27.3 xG, giving them an average expected goal difference of -0.45.
With a disparity of 1.67 in average expected goal differences in the hosts favor, it really is difficult to go against the home win. Moreover, although it was some time ago, it’s hard to ignore how commanding Deila’s men when the pair met at this season earlier in the campaign, when they not only won by a goal to nil, nullifying their visitors, but they ended the match with an expected goal supremacy of +2.00.
Medina’s the man
Valentin Castellanos has stolen many of the headlines for NYCFC this season, and rightly so after notching 19 times, though fellow South American Jesus Medina is not a man to forget, especially ahead of this fixture. Scorer of nine regular-season goals, Medina ended his goal drought in NYCFC’s penultimate home fixture, scoring against DC United, while he carried a goal threat for much of the campaign, even when he wasn’t scoring, as an average of 0.38 xG suggests.
If you’re interested in a player prop, then the Paraguayan, who this season has produced a career-best average of 2.28 shots per 90 minutes, appeals as a goal scorer. So these are the NYCFC vs Atlanta Utd betting predictions and picks for this preview: