Michael Parkhurst (right) and company made life miserable for David Villa and his teammates. (Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
BRONX, N.Y. =– On Sunday night, Atlanta United had New York City FC’s number — in more ways than one.
Actually, if you want to get technical, it was less than one.
There was the zero on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, meaning that City had been blanked at home for only the second time this season.
There was another interesting zero on the scoresheet, as in the number of shots NYCFC put on target against goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
The hosts could not have picked a worse time — the opening leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals — to have a meltdown on its attack.
“No excuses,” head coach Domenec Torrent said.
Although there were plenty of reasons why Atlanta was able to hold a team that boasted striker David Villa (14 goals) and midfielder Maxi Moralez (16 assists) off the board. United made life miserable for the Argentina playmaker, getting physical with him (six fouls) and throwing him off his game. Not surprisingly, the 5-3 Moralez, the obvious player of the match in the 3-1 knockout round win over Philadelphia Wednesday night, never was a factor four days later.
“It’s a bad result for us,” Torrent said.
And a good result for Atlanta, which scored a precious away goal while blanking City.
The visitors accomplished that feat in so many ways possible. They clogged up passing lanes, blocked or cleared just about everything that was sent into the box and played a physical game. In fact, their 21 fouls committed was a team-high for this season, eclipsed their previous best of 15.
“That’s the way you have to play every game, regular season or the playoffs, it doesn’t matter,” Atlanta head coach Tata 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.”
Moralez was unavailable for comment, but Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst was as he explained his team’s strategy on shutting down the shifty midfielder.
“We talked about him and Villa a lot, obviously,” he said. “Their partnership up top is what makes them tick and I thought Eric [Remedi] did a fantastic job on him, 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.”
NYCFC didn’t help itself either.
Torrent noticed that his three attackers — Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Ronald Matarrita, Moralez and Villa — were not always on the same page.
“When you have three-four players with their back to the goal, it’s impossible,” he said. “Maxi decided to play in the middle. That was a mistake. He can play like a winger.
“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.”
Goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who surrendered Remedi’s goal late in the first half, said Atlanta pressed well.
“They knew how we wanted to play,” he said. “It was just going be a battle to see if we could win a second ball.”
NYCFC has seven days to lick its proverbial wounds and get a game plan to overcome Atlanta at the Mercedes-Benz Dome, no easy place for any visiting side.
“We need to improve, absolutely,” Torrent said. “We need to improve for the next game because they have quality.”
Which was something that NYCFC did not show for long stretches of the match Sunday night.