Alexandru Mitrita is peaking at the perfect time for New York City FC.
The club’s record signing had his best performance yet in NYCFC’s most crucial game of the club’s most successful regular season, scoring three times in a 20-minute stretch to lead City to a 4-1 win over Atlanta United FC.
Mitrita, who joined from Romania for a club-record $9.1 million last offseason, delivered the first hat trick for NYCFC since David Villa scored three against the Red Bulls in August 2017.
"More important is the victory this night," Mitrita said. "We played amazing, we have amazing team, and I’m very happy for my first hat trick."
The victory gives City 61 points this season, guaranteeing at least a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference while eliminating Atlanta in the race for the East’s top seed with two games to play. NYCFC could have clinched the No. 1 spot, which comes with a first-round playoff bye and a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, with a Philadelphia draw or loss at San Jose late Wednesday night, but the Union hung on for a 2-1 road victory. City can clinch the top spot Sunday by earning at least a point on the road against New England, or seeing Philadelphia lose or draw at Columbus.
"We’re treating it like the playoffs, I think that’s the thing, the playoffs for us start now," said Sebastien Ibeagha, who started out of position at right back for the injured Anton Tinnerholm. "We want to start turning the screw and just being more lethal in everything we do. Whether that’s defending or finishing and all that. And I think that’s the main thing, we came out with this game to make a statement. We wanted to tell ourselves that we are ready and let other people know that we’re ready for the playoffs right now."
Ibeagha initiated the offensive attack for the first goal in the 14th minute, winning a duel to gain possession and finding Ismael Tajour-Shradi on the right wing. Tajouri-Shradi carried the ball through the midfield before slicing a pass through the defense to Mitrita, who took a few touches across the top of the 18-yard box before blasting home the score past a diving Brad Guzan and into the far corner.
About 10 minutes later, Mitrita nearly replicated the opener. Maxi Moralez sent a perfect ball over the top to Mitrita, who was running into open space behind a defender. Mitrita corralled the pass, brought it onto his right foot, ran through the defender and banked it off the near post for his second of the night.
The third goal was perhaps the easiest for the man known as ‘Mitri.’ Tajouri-Shradi did much of the work, taking on a pair of defenders before hammering a shot from the top of the box. Guzan pushed it to his left — right into the path of a sprinting Mitrita, who cleaned up the rebound for his hat trick.
City nearly went up 4-0 near the end of the half when Atlanta defender Florentin Pogba steamrolled Moralez in the box for a penalty, but Moralez struck his attempt poorly, sending it wide of the target.
Atlanta managed to get one back in the second half after Maxime Chanot conceded a penalty, earning a yellow card in the process. Gonzalo Martinez converted the penalty with ease, but it was all the defending MLS Cup champions could muster.
NYCFC returned the margin to three goals late when leading scorer Héber Araújo dos Santos, coming off the bench for his first minutes since Aug. 31, scored after dribbling past Guzan in a one-on-one battle and placing the ball gently into the net in the 87th minute.