Alex Callens celebrates his goal against Orlando City SC. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Entering Decision Day on Sunday, New York City FC can control its own destiny.

If the Cityzens (15-11-7, 52 points) defeat or tie Atlanta United (10-13-10, 30) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (2:30 p.m. kickoff), they will secure third place in the MLS Eastern Conference. The worst they can do is fourth place, but a No. 3 finish will keep them out of facing the top team in the conference, which could be either the first-place Philadelphia Union (18-5-10, 64) or CF Montreal (19-9-5, 62), depending on Sunday’s results.

It’s best to keep away the better teams until later in the competition.

NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing has a team that is in perfect health entering the match. During a Friday Zoom press conference, he did not say whether he would use regulars or players who need some playing time.

“It’s completely 50-50 in that sense – you can look at it one way and say: ‘We’re in, we’ve secured a home game so we can only be three or four. So we can get the likes of Heber, Alfredo [Morales], Keaton [Parks], Anton [Tinnerholm] back in, we can give some players who haven’t had much football some minutes and rest players who have played a lot of football.

“We can look at it that way, but we can also look at it the other way – that momentum is really important. If you look at last year, going into the playoffs, we were on a really good run and although we didn’t win the last regular season game, it was a really positive performance.”

After stumbling through a nightmare 10 matches in which City could win but once, the reigning MLS Cup champions have rediscovered their form and mojo in their last three matches. They are 3-0-0 across all competitions, which includes two MLS wins and a League Cup championship.

NYCFC has a pretty decent Decision Day record (4-0-2) as it hasn’t lost on that day since the team’s 2015 debut season in 2015. That was a defeat to the New England Revolution. Besides, City had been eliminated from post-season contention before then.

On last year’s Decision Day, the team registered a 1-1 draw with the Union at Yankee Stadium.

An obvious player to watch is center back Alex Callens, who has been doing it on both ends of the field. He has become a contender for MLS defender of the year with his stellar play. His five goals this campaign is a club record for defenders, which ranks in third in the league among backline players. Los Angeles FC’s Ryan Hollingshead and Atlanta United’s Juan Jose Purata, with six goals each. So, it is possible for the Peruvian international to catch or even surpass those two players.

Atlanta will be without midfielder Santiago Sosa, who was suspended for three matches by MLS on Saturday and issued an undisclosed fine for the use of a homophobic slur in Atlanta’s 2-1 away loss at the New England Revolution on Oct. 1, 2022. Sosa is also required to attend LGBTQ+ Allyship training through Athlete Ally. He will start his ban on Sunday and sit out the first two regular season matches in 2023. Sosa has scored once in 1,409 minutes over 15 starts and 21 appearances this campaign.