It's a big one on Sunday as New York City FC take on Atlanta United in their Round One MLS Cup Playoff clash.
Hi Chris, thanks for speaking with us. How long have you been covering MLS?
Firstly, thank you for having me! This is my third full season covering MLS, and I've been in the journalism game for four years. Things have really ramped up this year with my switch to 90min, where I get to cover the league on a full-time basis.
What’s been your favorite moment covering the league?
It's not particularly a singular moment, but witnessing and covering the return of Josef Martinez has been a privilege. The guy is an absolute legend, not just in Atlanta, but around MLS as a whole. To see what he went through with his ACL injury, and the struggle to get back - he even came close to giving up the game altogether. It was really tough. Now, he's back scoring goals and being the talisman for Atlanta United. He deserves it as a person and a professional.
Atlanta have had an interesting campaign with a mid-season turnaround sparked by the arrival of Gonzalo Pineda. How would you evaluate the team's 2021 campaign?
It's really been a three-part campaign. Early promise under Gabriel Heinze quickly evaporated and was replaced by dark clouds. The whole club seemed to be at war with itself. Rob Valentino deserves first credit for steadying the ship. Without him, the success Pineda has enjoyed wouldn't be possible. Though that certainly isn't a detriment to the job Gonzalo is doing. The two complement each other well.
On the whole, 2021 has to be seen as a success given how poor Atlanta United were in 2020. Even if it couldn't have been just a little better, with the team missing out on hosting this weekend's match thanks to some inconsistency.
What have been the biggest changes under Pineda in your opinion?
Pineda has largely continued the good work started by Valentino, and he's admitted as much. But one thing that really stands out is how much more 'together' everyone seems. The players have each other's backs and are fighting for each other, but really seem to be clicking off the pitch too. The whole mood has just lifted so much. He seems like a real people person.
The last time the two teams met, a late goal for NYCFC secured the team a draw. What have been your takeaways from the two meetings this season?
I actually don't see a huge amount of value in looking into the first fixture too much. Atlanta have changed so much since then. The second game really encapsulated where this team is - high on quality but with real inconsistencies and a couple of glaring weaknesses. Still, there are positives to take and reasons to be optimistic this weekend. Nobody needed telling, but we also learned you can never, ever switch off against NYCFC. They have so many ways to hurt you.
If you were to identify Atlanta's dangerman, who would that be?
It'd be too easy to say Josef Martinez, so I'll go with Marcelino Moreno.
Throughout the course of the entire season, Moreno has been the one guy Atlanta could always count on, whether they've been good, bad, or ugly. For me, he's at his best in the middle, driving Atlanta forward in transition, or making late runs into the box to score goals. He's also a big pressure relief valve - he's really good at winning fouls, often in dangerous areas.
The likes of Ezequiel Barco and Luiz Araújo are obviously dangerous, too. But I think NYCFC's task starts with stopping Moreno.
And finally, what are your predictions for Sunday's game?
Call me an optimist, but I've been gunning for an Atlanta United win, 2-1. There's something about Josef Martinez and this club as a whole that's made for the big occasion. NYCFC are so strong offensively, but with no Anton Tinnerholm, I think they can be opened up.
It should be a fun game either way!