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Will NYCFC’s strong finish to the regular season carry over for MLS Cup playoffs?

Contributions from Heber, Taty Castellanos and others have NYCFC feeling good for the home stretch.

Sep 25, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson (1) plays the ball against Atlanta United during the second half at Yankee Stadium. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

BRONX, N.Y. — Sean Johnson recognizes the importance of finishing the regular season strong. That opinion is based on history, both for New York City FC and the club that went on to win MLS Cup.

The veteran goalkeeper likes what he sees from NYCFC, which extended an unbeaten to streak to nine games following a 4-1 victory over Atlanta United Wednesday night in the club’s final regular season game at Yankee Stadium.

He believes if NYCFC’s form can continue through the final two games of the season — at New England Sunday and at Philadelphia on Decision Day — it will not only mean first place in the Eastern Conference, but also that NYCFC is going into the playoffs on a high note.

That wasn’t the case in 2017, when the Cityzens won just one of their last seven games before being knocked out of the MLS Cup playoffs by the Columbus Crew at first asking.

And in 2018, NYCFC were 2-5-4 down the stretch and, after beating the Union in the knockout round, the club were ousted by eventual champion Atlanta 4-1 on aggregate.

In contrast, 2017 MLS Cup champion Toronto FC went 8-2-1 to capture the Supporters’ Shield.  Last year, the Five Stripes were 10-3-2 to close out the regular season and lost out on the Shield on Decision Day to the New York Red Bulls.

Currently, NYCFC are 7-0-2 heading into the final two regular-season games.

“We’re finally in a position now that we’re on the up and up instead of in previous years being a little rocky at the end,” Johnson told Pro Soccer USA. “We hit a really good way. You can’t ask for anything more going into the playoffs. I think you’ve seen the past a different [playoff] structure, but the thing that really holds true is that teams that carry that momentum into the playoffs are the ones that are typically better off.”

Heber’s back

NYCFC coach Dome Torrent hoped Heber would see perhaps 30 minutes in his first appearance in nearly a month. The Brazilian’s return from a hamstring injury could not have gone any better. Heber entered for hat-trick hero Alexandru Mirtira in the 63rd minute and didn’t miss a beat, scoring his team-leading 15th goal of the season in the 87th minute.

“It’s good because it’s very important for one player who comes back after he miss one month, after the injury, it’s very important to start to play.” Torrent said. “For the striker, especially, that he scores — it’s much better. Right now it’s step by step with Heber. It’s important he played 30 minutes. Maybe the next game 60 minutes, I don’t know. But the most important thing is to arrive in the best form in the playoffs.”

Unsung hero

Torrent understands why a lot of the post-match emphasis was on Mitrita, who scored the third hat trick in club history. Heber added a goal, Maxi Moralez picked up his 20th assist of the season, becoming the third player in league history to do so, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi also had an assist.

But Torrent was quick to laud the play of Taty Castellanos, who didn’t make it onto the scoresheet, but was instrumental in the decisive win, according to Torrent.

“Taty, for example, played amazing,” he said. “The people think about strikers or the wingers its important they score. OK, I agree, but important is to play well and he played really well and he helped us 100 percent. He was really tired, but he’s a fighter.”

“Without Taty today it would be impossible to win the game,” he added.

NYCFC will be without Castellanos Sunday in New England. The Argentine winger, who was booked in the 71st minute, will be suspended for yellow card accumulation. He joins captain Alex Ring, who will also serve a one-game ban for his fifth yellow card.

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