Major League Soccer

MLS Cup Playoffs preview: New York City FC

Chris Smith
NYCFC are a dangerous attacking outfit.
NYCFC are a dangerous attacking outfit. /

New York City FC head into the MLS Cup Playoffs armed with one of the most dangerous forward lines in the league.

This is the sixth season in a row NYCFC have made the Playoffs and although they've never gone beyond the Eastern Conference semi-finals during that time, nobody will be taking them lightly.

Here's everything you need to know about NYCFC ahead of the post season - from tactics to key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

How did NYCFC make it to the MLS Cup Playoffs?

NYCFC started and ended the season well enough to finish fourth in the East, but a nasty mid-year habit of picking up red cards (six in 10 games between the start of August and late September) saw them give up a lot of points.

Luckily, Ronny Deila's attack clicked into gear again and a run of three wins and two draws - with 12 goals scored - across their final five regular season matches got them back above the Playoff line and into fourth.

As a result, they'll host Atlanta United in Round One but should they advance, they'll likely travel from that point on - including potentially going to the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference semi-final.

Ronny Deila: Tactics and style of play

Ronny Deila has built a strong attacking force.
Ronny Deila has built a strong attacking force. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Deila has experimented with three at the back this season, but 4-2-3-1 is his go-to setup. The Norwegian coach likes his full-backs to drive forward - losing Anton Tinnerholm to an ACL injury hurts here - his center-backs to play out, and his wingers to tuck inside.

With all that forward motion, it's important NYCFC's double-pivot protects the center-backs - who partners Alfredo Morales in the absence of Keaton Parks remains up in the air. Maxi Moralez roams behind golden boot winner Taty Castellanos, picking the ball up in pockets of space where he can slice open the opposition defense.

NYCFC score highly in a huge number of metrics and can hurt you in so many different ways.

Who are NYCFC's key players?

Taty Castellanos: A late run of six goals in his final four regular season games saw Taty Castellanos catch up with his xG and win the MLS Golden Boot. But even if the Argentine returns to frustrating in front of goal, he remains vital to this NYCFC team. He can dribble, he can pass, and his hold-up play is great. And Castellanos is extremely intelligent with and without the ball - he'll draw you out as NYCFC come forward, or keep you pinned when trying to play out. NYCFC's MLS Cup chances depend on Castellanos being at his best.

Maxi Moralez: Six of Castellanos' 19 goals were set up by Maxi Moralez, making the Argentine pair the most prolific assister-to-goalscorer duo in MLS. Moralez had a relatively slow 2020 by his own standards and there were those who believed the 34-year-old was starting to slow down. In fairness, who didn't struggle given the distractions of 2020? Moralez is back this year, with three goals and 11 assists. Give him space and he'll punish you.

Alexander Callens: If there's one weakness in this NYCFC team, it's in the back - specifically going one-on-one with ball carriers. While their 38 percent tackle success rate against dribblers is by no means the worst in the league, it's pretty poor for a side of NYCFC's caliber. With Tinnerholm out to his right and Parks sidelined in front of him, Alexander Callens is going to have a big job on his hands anchoring Deila's defense. The Peruvian center-back has a team-high 56 percent success rate when tackling dribblers this season, which is lucky considering this is the area New York's Round One opponents, Atlanta United, are best. Callens must keep the back door shut while the forwards get to work.

How far can NYCFC go in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Can NYCFC go all the way? | Matthew Burt
Can NYCFC go all the way? | Matthew Burt /

As hosts, NYCFC are favorites against Atlanta United. However, the Five Stripes' brilliance at ball-carrying and drawing the opponent into one-on-one duels might just be the kryptonite that derails Deila's side. Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno, and Luiz Araujo are hot to handle.

This is arguably the closest of the Round One ties in the East, but one NYCFC could end up losing if they go too top-heavy.

Prediction: Round One