The two teams on top of the Eastern Conference table will collide when unbeaten New York City FC visits Atlanta United on Sunday for an early season battle between contenders in good form at raucous Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
NYCFC (5-0-1) is the only team in MLS yet to suffer a loss and has outscored opponents 14-4. After posting a 4-0 win over Real Salt Lake in a midweek clash on Wednesday, NYCFC leads MLS in goal differential and overall goals.
“I think most importantly for us — every game is a different challenge,” NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson told MLSsoccer.com. “We have a group of players that are very driven, very focused, very hungry. I think hungry is the best word to describe this group. Every game, we know we have to go in and put on a performance.”
Article continues below ...
United has been almost as impressive as NYCFC. Atlanta (4-1-0) has won four straight and has outscored its three opponents at home 12-1 this season. United drummed LAFC 5-0 in its last outing and has 13 goals this season, second most in the league behind NYCFC.
“I just think teams know we’re talented and they come in here and know they have to perform,” Darlington Nagbe told the team’s website.”
United received a scare this week when leading goal scorer Josef Martinez sustained an injury to his left arm during Wednesday training. Martinez, who is tied for the MLS lead with five goals, returned to training Thursday wearing a brace. He is expected to play Sunday.
Atlanta, however, will be without midfielder Ezequiel Barco, the team’s prized offseason acquisition. Barco has yet to make his season debut after sustaining a quad injury during the preseason.
Barco returned to training this week, but he is listed as out for Sunday’s game.
NYCFC star David Villa returned to action on Wednesday after missing three games because of a quad injury. Villa came off the bench against RSL, but he is expected to be in the starting 11 against Atlanta.
Atlanta and NYCFC split last season’s two meetings, with each team winning on its own pitch.
“Yeah just to set the tone, it’s a big game for both teams,” Nagbe said. “It’s just the beginning of the season, but it sets the tone for the games to come in the future.”
United defender Michael Parkhurst said, “For sure, we’ll be up for it because they’re one of the best teams in the league. Right now, they’re right at the top and they have been for the last few years, so we definitely know it will be a challenging game.”