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NYCFC focused on top seed in Eastern Conference with defending champion Atlanta United in town

Alexander Ring #8 of New York City FC

Alexander Ring #8 of New York City FC passes the ball during their game against Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium on September 11, 2019. Credit: Getty Images/Emilee Chinn

After a loss to defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United on Aug. 11, New York City FC head coach Domènec Torrent delivered a clear message about his disappointment with his team’s mentality.

“You have to play with confidence every single game, if you make a mistake, you make a mistake,” said Torrent following the defeat. “I prefer you lose the game [as long as] you try to play good soccer.”

Message received.

Playing good soccer is more or less what NYCFC has done since that defeat. The club hasn’t lost since, going 6-0-2 to climb atop the Eastern Conference standings, and will face Atlanta once again on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. An NYCFC victory would eliminate the defending champions from contention for the conference’s top seed and only first-round bye in the MLS Cup playoffs. A win plus a Philadelphia loss or draw against San Jose later in the evening would guarantee City the East’s No. 1 seed, a fact clearly on the team’s mind entering the midweek match.

“If we win that game, we’re not far off from winning the East, and that’s all we want to do right now,” captain Alexander Ring said Tuesday.

Should NYCFC secure the top seed, the August trip to Atlanta likely will be the memorable turning point in the club’s season. City spent much of the season hovering near the middle of the East with a few games in hand, sitting fourth after the loss. But since then, the team’s penchant for playing long has decreased as the players continue to trust themselves, and the club has found a way to get at least a point out of some bad situations without a handful of key players at different times.

“I think we’ve done much better after that game,” Ring said. “I think we talked about it a lot, because we felt like it’s not that we didn’t give it our everything, but we just lacked confidence.

“The way we want to play, if you don’t have courage, confidence to even make mistakes, it’s going to be hard on us, because we’re not the tallest and strongest team for playing long balls, and that’s not the way we want to play, it’s not our philosophy.”

NYCFC has built up its confidence over the last month, but an important part of that may not be available in Wednesday’s key matchup. Midfielder Keaton Parks, who’s calmness on the ball has allowed the team to control possession from the back, is questionable against Atlanta due to a hamstring injury picked up in Sunday’s draw against his hometown FC Dallas. Right back Anton Tinnerholm also is ruled out for Wednesday after leaving the Dallas game with a concussion. Atlanta has its own injury situation to deal with, specifically a hamstring injury suffered by leading scorer Josef Martinez in a win Saturday.

“I’d prefer if both would play with their best because we want to play against the best, we want to win against the best,” Ring said. “I think on both sides we have some very important players missing. Now it’s time for others to step up.”

Héber back in action

NYCFC leading scorer Héber Araujo dos Santos is expected to make an appearance against Atlanta, said Torrent. Still recovering from a quad injury, Héber could play 25-to-30 minutes Wednesday as the club looks to reintegrate him into the squad ahead of the playoffs.

“It’s step-by-step when it’s this kind of injury, it’s not easy to play 90 minutes the first game,” Torrent said.

New York Sports