Teams often fall into ruts and skids as they navigate the marathon MLS regular season. Yet the tolerance for extended dips in form tends to be lower for defending champions and well-established title contenders like New York City FC.

Thanks to Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Atlanta United at Yankee Stadium, the MLS Cup 2021 holders are now winless (0W-2L-3D) in five straight matches across league and US Open Cup play. Their last victory came way back on Memorial Day weekend, in Ronny Deila’s last match in charge before departing for Belgium’s Standard Liege, meaning Nick Cushing has yet to taste victory since taking over as interim head coach.

It’s now impossible to ignore: By their own lofty standards, the Pigeons are struggling.

"I'm disappointed"

On Sunday, Dom Dwyer’s 86th-minute equalizer – created by Ronaldo Cisneros exploiting center back Alex Callens’ rash misstep and subsequent slip – punished the Cityzens’ wastefulness in the attacking third, robbing NYCFC at the home venue where they usually dominate. Taken in tandem with the 1-1 draw vs. Colorado Rapids in their previous home game on June 19, that’s four points dropped against two visitors languishing in the lower half of the standings.

“I'm not concerned about not winning in five, I'm disappointed,” said Cushing, a former assistant under Deila. “I want to win and the nature of this team is that when we draw, especially here at Yankee Stadium, it's almost like the feel of a defeat, because we want to win so much.

“But this team will win; the attitude has been incredible. The application and the work rate has been top level, I'm really happy with that. We've just had a lot of football and it catches up with you late in those games. So we need to get back to making sure that we see games out or we get that two-goal cushion where we win the game.”

Atlanta’s comeback marred a two-goal outburst from star striker Taty Castellanos, who’d gone quiet in recent weeks. Afterwards, the striker noted the Pigeons have been leaking late goals like Dwyer’s, and the last-gasp winner Cory Burke scored in the Philadelphia Union’s dramatic 2-1 win at Subaru Park last week, and the three second-half goals conceded in the painful 3-0 rivalry loss to the New York Red Bulls in the US Open Cup quarterfinals on June 22.

“For us, it's about working in the training facility and just trying to figure out what's going on,” said Castellanos, who’s now drawn level with FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira atop the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.

“We've been conceding late in the game, we've been either getting tied or the other team going ahead and us beating them. We have the same base as we had with Ronny, but we’re all behind Nick, we support him fully, we have to go out and give him a victory.”

0703 NYC Cushing
Nick Cushing led Manchester City Women before coming to NYCFC.

Digging a hole

City have also dug early holes for themselves, too. They fell behind 3-0 to FC Cincinnati early in their wild 4-4 midweek draw and failed to match Philly’s intensity out of the gates in Pennsylvania.

Cushing says he isn’t ringing any alarm bells just yet despite a nine-game unbeaten run fading, as has their stretch of six straight shutouts before the June international break.

“Maybe we've just been a bit unlucky at the moment that Alex slips and then they get the cutback, and maybe in previous games before the break, maybe Sean [Johnson] pulls a save off there,” he said. “It’s disappointing we didn't get the two-goal cushion, it’s also disappointing we didn’t see the game out.

“The performances, I think, have been good. I thought the performance today was good,” he added later. “Obviously we weren't happy to start the game slow against Philadelphia away, but the away games in this league are really difficult. We start the Cincinnati game slow, but then we were really good in the game to get back in it. The performance today, I was happy with. We just didn't get that two-goal cushion which, you look at this league, you look at Atlanta at Red Bulls [on Thursday], they take that one-goal lead and they don't see the game out because teams consistently push. The level in this league is so consistent.”

No "alarm bells"

Castellanos pointed to their five-game winless patch last September and October, an unsightly skid marked by two losses to RBNY and a setback to also-rans Chicago Fire FC that proved the prelude to a torrid autumn resurgence that carried them all the way to MLS Cup glory.

“It really comes down to us and how we approach the game,” said the Argentine, calling on his squad to “improve ourselves and work on the small details at the end of games” ahead of next weekend’s visit from New England. “We're still currently at the top of the table, we’re still fighting up there, so it’s working every single day to see it out.”

Amid this skid, NYCFC have slipped from Eastern Conference leaders to ending Week 18 at fourth place with a game (or two) on most ahead of them: Philly, CF Montréal and Red Bulls. They return to action next Saturday when hosting the Revs (1 pm ET | UniMas, TUDN, Twitter), still seeking their first victory after Deila departed midseason.

"I wouldn’t say we need to ring any alarm bells," said goalkeeper and captain Sean Johnson. "It is part of the season, the ebbs and flows. Everyone expects us to fly the rest of the season without losing a game, which is fair. We set that expectation playing the way we do. [It's] understanding that we are still in a really good place and if we get the things right now, we will be okay pushing on the rest of the year."