New York City FC gets a chance to savor the rewards of a successful season Sunday when the Eastern Conference leader wraps up its regular season at home Sunday versus a Philadelphia Union team still trying to claim the No. 2 spot.
The Bronx Blues (17-6-10) clinched the top seed despite a 2-0 loss at New England last Sunday as both reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United and Philadelphia (16-10-7) failed to make up ground. Dome Torrent’s squad earned a bye into the Eastern Conference semifinals and also a spot in next season’s CONCACAF Champions League for the first time in club history.
“I think it’s very important for our club because it’s the first time,” Torrent said at his Wednesday media availability. “New York City is a new club, it’s very important to make the next step. It’s very important to finish in first place. The first step is to finish first, second to win the MLS cup, third to play in the Champions League because it’s an international competition.
The club is happy with the players, with me, with everybody. It’s important because it’s the next step for the MLS, the next step for us and for the American players in our club.”
Torrent did not say how strong of a lineup he will field with nothing at stake for his side, but center back James Sands could be in line for a return following a nine-game absence due to a broken clavicle. A key figure after being dropped to the back line from central midfield, the 19-year-old has missed 13 games during the season with a pair of injuries suffered in both games versus FC Cincinnati.
“I certainly hope so,” Sands told ProSoccer USA about playing versus the Union. “That would be a good place for me to get some minutes against a top team. Even a few minutes off the bench would be helpful going into the playoffs.”
NYCFC also took a major step towards keeping their core intact for next season by signing Designated Player and midfielder Maxi Moralez to a two-year extension through 2021. The Argentine leads MLS with 20 assists – tied for the second-highest single-season total in league history behind Carlos Valderrama’s 26 with the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2000.
The Union need to have a better result than Atlanta United – who host the New England Revolution – to claim the No. 2 spot in the East. Both teams are on 55 points, but the Five Stripes own the primary tiebreaker by virtue of having more wins.
Jim Curtin’s team is back home after taking three points on a three-match road swing, bracketing a 2-1 victory at San Jose with 2-0 defeats to the Red Bulls and Columbus. A four-minute breakdown in the second half proved fatal for the Union.
“We had control of the game in the second half and got caught pushing aggressively in the box and they countered us well,” Curtin said before turning his attention to NYCFC. “It’s an important game for us to gain momentum and end a very good regular season the right way.
“The importance of three points this weekend is huge, I think our players recognize that and we’ll approach the game that way.”
Curtin is expected to hold out talisman and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya for this contest after the former U.S. international suffered a strained quad versus Columbus. The Union manager could drop Jamiro Monteiro deeper in midfield to partner with Haris Medunjanin while slotting Marco Fabian further up in the playmaking No. 10 role.
Moralez factored on all four goals in the first meeting this season, a 4-2 NYCFC home victory June 29. He converted penalties in both halves and set up both of Valentin Castellanos’ two goals in the second half, including the go-ahead tally in the 72nd minute.
The Bronx Blues lead the all-time series 7-3-1 and have won six of the last seven between the clubs.