New York FC V’s Atlanta United

A pair of European strikers will take center stage as New York’s two MLS franchises bid to overcome one-goal deficits in Sunday’s conference semi-finals. New York FC finds itself 1-0 down against a superb Atlanta United side and it will turn to legendary forward David Villa to dig it out of trouble. New York Red Bulls are trailing Columbus 1-0 on aggregate and they require a strong performance from Bradley Wright-Phillips if they are to reverse the deficit. These forwards have experienced markedly different career trajectories, but they both have the ability to rescue their teams on Sunday.

Villa is Spain’s all-time record goalscorer and he led the team to victory in the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 European Championship. He won domestic titles with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and seized the Champions League in 2011. Since arriving in New York he has been named MLS MVP and All-Star each year. Wright-Phillips, on the other hand, achieved nothing of note in Europe, where he only featured in the lower leagues in England for the likes of Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton and Brentford. But he has been a revelation since joining Red Bulls in 2013, banging in 105 goals in 171 games and winning three Supporters’ Shield titles.

Wright-Phillips is given a far greater chance of success at the weekend. The odds-on offer at the top betting websites make New York Red Bulls the -133 favorite to beat Columbus, and it is expected to go through to the conference final. However, New York City is the clear underdog in its second leg contest against Atlanta United, and many pundits expect a final between New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United. They have been the two best teams in the league this season and whoever seizes the east is expected to go on and win the MLS Cup in comfortable fashion.

However, Villa could throw a spanner in the works. He has scored 11 goals in 19 games this season, and he only needs have a chance to find the back of the net. He is now 36 years old, and most strikers have already hung up their boots at that age, but he retains a great deal of energy and desire. He is New York FC’s record goalscorer, with 77 goals since 2014, and they will turn to him for inspiration on Sunday.

MLS fans have been treated to some magnificent attacking talents in recent times, with Thierry Henry, Kaka and Robbie Keane all thriving in the US. But right now they are especially spoiled for choice when it comes to exciting foreign imports. Villa is tearing it up in New York, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is putting teams to the sword with his brilliance in LA and Wayne Rooney has been sensational since joining DC United. These players do not view the league as a final payday, but as a perfect platform on which to prolong their careers, and the overall quality of the league continues to improve.

The next step will be to attract big international names before they reach the twilights of their careers. For every Rooney or Villa, there is a Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard, players with big reputations that were spent as footballers by the time they arrived in the USA. As such, foreign imports of a certain age will always be met with scepticism until – like Rooney – they prove otherwise. Wright-Phillips was 28 when he arrived and his career was stalling, and it would be great to see MLS franchise signing players in their 20s when they are at the peak of their powers. If the likes of Villa, Rooney and Ibrahimovic keep putting on such a great show, it might just convince some younger players to follow in their footsteps.

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