New York City FC returns to the MLS Cup playoffs for the sixth straight season at 3 p.m. on Sunday, continuing the club's quest for its first trophy with an opening round matchup against Atlanta United. Here are three things to keep an eye on when NYCFC takes the pitch at Yankee Stadium:
1. Which 'Taty' shows up?
Valentín Castellanos had no problem finding goal-scoring opportunities throughout the season. Actually finishing those chances, however, was sometimes a struggle, and NYCFC’s fortunes often were tied to the striker’s performance. NYCFC finished the season 10-2-3 (33 points) when "Taty" was on the scoresheet. In games he played but failed to find the net, City was just 4-8-5 (17 points).
Castellanos is at his best when his confidence is high, allowing him to claim ownership of dangerous positions, attack crosses in the box and take his chances from distance, all things NYCFC saw consistently near the end of the season. With six goals in his final four games, Castellanos finished strong enough to capture the MLS Golden Boot with 19 goals, and NYCFC went unbeaten in that stretch. If that hot streak continues after a two-week layoff, NYCFC will like its odds.
2. Who takes reins in midfield?
Sunday could have been a career moment for reserve midfielder Gedion Zelalem. The 24-year-old Arsenal academy product has yet to establish himself anywhere, but showed flashes of skill in a handful of minutes for NYCFC late in the season. With an injury to Keaton Parks, Zelalem was handed his only start of the season on Decision Day alongside Alfredo Morales. He responded with an ill-advised tackle just 20 minutes in, earning a straight red card and a ban for the playoff opener.
With Zelalem suspended, Parks out for the rest of 2021 after having a blood clot removed and Nicolás Acevedo still sidelined (lower-body injury), there’s a gaping hole in NYCFC’s central midfield beside Morales. James Sands could be an option, but the versatile U.S. national teamer has served NYCFC well in a hybrid right back/centerback role since Anton Tinnerholm ruptured his Achilles last month. NYCFC may find it easier to move a more offensive player, such as Jesús Medina or Santiago Rodriguez, into the central role and lean on Morales for the defensive work. Whichever way coach Ronny Deila goes, he’ll likely have to trust an unproven young player to start on the club’s biggest stage yet this season.
3. Is Alexander Callens at full strength?
Deila’s decision in midfield could become simpler, but not in any way he’d like. Last week, Alexander Callens was released from international duty with Peru early after suffering a muscle injury. Callens has been training at NYCFC’s facility since, and Deila said Friday he believes there’s a "big chance" Callens is good to go for Sunday.
Still, the possibility remains that Callens will be unavailable, or at limited capacity against Atlanta United, something that could hamstring an already thin NYCFC defense. If his centerback spot needs to be filled, Sands is the obvious option, but that would open up his spot on the right while also taking him out of contention for midfield. Should Sands be moved centrally, academy products Tayvon Gray and Andres Jasson could be candidates on the right. Should Sands stay where he’s been and Callens need to be pulled, there's a chance little-used 2021 SuperDraft pick Vuk Latinovich could find himself up against Atlanta’s former MVP Josef Martínez in a big spot Sunday.
MLS Cup playoffs, Eastern Conference first round
NYCFC vs. Atlanta United FC
Kickoff: Sunday, 3 p.m.
Location: Yankee Stadium
TV: Ch. 7/ABC