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NYCFC: No preference in MLS Cup playoff opponent

NYCFC accrued 23 points in the final 10 games of the regular season, more than any other playoff-bound team.

Oct 6, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York City FC defender Ronald Matarrita (22) celebrates his goal with defender Ben Sweat (2), midfielder Maximiliano Moralez (10), and midfielder Valentin Castellanos in the first half against the Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium. (James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)

CHESTER, Pa. — There was little on the line for New York City FC in a decision day contest against the Philadelphia Union.

But for two defensive standouts returning from injuries, it was a critical chance to work toward full match fitness ahead of the MLS Cup playoffs.

Anton Tinnerholm, who missed two games after suffering a concussion in a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas Sept. 22, and James Sands, back on the field after nine games away due to a broken clavicle, both returned to the field in NYCFC’s regular-season-ending 2-1 win over the Union.

Tinnerholm started and played all but one minute, while Sands came on for an eight-minute substitute appearance.

It was big for both players because NYCFC’s first playoff game isn’t until Oct. 23.

“I think it’s hard especially when you play a team like that, just because it depends on the situation of the game if I’m going to go in or not,” Sands told Pro Soccer USA. “If we had a huge lead I probably would have gone in sooner. It’s hard to get up to speed after I’ve been out for so long. I think the minutes I got were good.”

While both will train fully, the only way to get match fitness is to play in matches.

“It’s good to be back,” Tinnerolm said. “I think I needed it before the playoff game. I think we’re going to have some kind of scrimmage before next weekend, I hope so it’s not too big of a break.”

During the break, NYCFC will likely meet its academy team in a scrimmage, which both players say will be advantageous to get into a rhythm.

“I think I can get most of the way there and then in the playoffs, everyone has to raise their games,” Sands said. “So I just have to be able to get my fitness up a little more.”

Toronto FC or D.C. United?

Decision day brought about clarity in the MLS Cup playoff picture. NYCFC already knew they’d have home-field advantage, but now know who they’ll meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals — sort of.

The Cityzens will host either Toronto FC or D.C. United on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at either Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, depending on availability related to the Major League Baseball playoffs.

NYCFC drew D.C. United 0-0 at Yankee Stadium March 10, won 2-0 at Audi Field a month later and also came from behind to defeat D.C. in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16, 2-1, June 19.

NYCFC suffered a lopsided 4-0 defeat to Toronto FC at BMO Field March 29 and drew the Reds 1-1 at Yankee Stadium Sept. 11.

So, any preference when it comes to an opponent?

“I don’t care, playoffs is different. It’s a one-game, a knockout game, it’s gonna be completely different,” Alex Ring said. “It’s important for us to win, but now those wins won’t help us in the future against these teams. We just have to go out on the pitch and compete and we have to win.”

“The preference is arrive in the best form in the first game,” coach Dome Torrent said. “After that, I don’t have the control about D.C., about Toronto. What happens, happens and we have to be ready to play against D.C., against Toronto.”

Best form down the stretch

When it comes to the team with the best form down the stretch of the regular season, NYCFC tops that list.

No playoff-bound team has accrued more points (23) in the final 10 games of the season or had more points per game (2.3) than NYCFC, which went 7-1-2. Atlanta United (6-3-1) was next with 19 points, 1.9 per game.

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