Rivalry Week

New York City FC find "liftoff" to reclaim Hudson River Derby


It’s not every matchday that a head coach orders his team to get turned up after the final whistle.

Yet that was the directive New York City FC boss Nick Cushing handed down to his squad after Saturday night’s pulsating 2-1 Hudson River Derby win over the New York Red Bulls at Citi Field as part of Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire.

“I don’t want to see anybody not raising the roof and enjoying this one,” Cushing said postgame of his message to his players, allowing a flicker of a smile to flash across his face. “Because I've said before and I will continue to say that tough times make strong teams, and I think you’re starting to see the fruits of that.”

NYCFC and their fans have good reason to bust loose a bit, even beyond the sweet taste of bragging rights earned over their crosstown foes. Saturday’s win caps a haul of the maximum nine points from three games in seven days against Eastern Conference adversaries Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union and RBNY, the first two on the road – a phase of the schedule dubbed the “City Hate Gauntlet” by some members of the clubs’ supporters.

It all extends the Pigeons’ ongoing hot streak to 6W-1L-0D over the past month or so, propelling them to third place in the East and fifth in the overall MLS table. It’s quite a dramatic turnaround for a side that stumbled out to a 1W-4L-2D start, markedly raising the temperature of Cushing’s seat.

“These games are thick and fast and really tough. But I’m proud of the players to be able to turn around three wins in seven days, in three tough places,” added Cushing. “Toronto, we’ve not had so much joy recently, Philly we haven’t won for a long time, and then to beat our rivals at home in front of an amazing crowd, it capped off an amazing week.”

The blue half of New York seized the early advantage, the excellent Hannes Wolf showing a cool head in the Red Bulls penalty box to open the scoring after a flowing team buildup just three minutes after kickoff, forcing the visitors to chase the game. Which they did tenaciously before ultimately running out of fuel as City bossed possession and made them chase.

“We are very disappointed about the result. At the beginning New York City was better in the game, and especially then after the first goal,” said RBNY head coach Sandro Schwarz. “The fighting spirit was top, we gave everything but it was not good enough today to change the result.”

Bakrar's moment

What augmented the Pigeons’ vibes even further was the source of NYCFC’s game-winning goal: Mounsef Bakrar, the misfiring striker whose name had become a byword for luckless finishing as he repeatedly flubbed good chances across a 15-match scoring drought stretching back to September 2023.

The Algerian’s inability to apply the killer touch was such that Justin Egan of NYCFC outlet The Outfield noted last month that “with a G-xG [goals minute expected goals] of -0.48 per 96 minutes, he holds the record for the worst underperformance in the American Soccer Analysis database, which dates back to 2013,” among players who’d logged his amount of minutes up to that point.

Yet there was no sign of those dreaded “yips” when Bakrar ghosted to the near post to slam home a smart low cross from Tayvon Gray just six minutes after entering the match in place of Jovan Mijatović.

Bakrar celebrated by running to the home team’s bench to embrace Cushing as the fans roared, communicating volumes about the recently-embattled coach’s relationship with his star-crossed frontrunner and, for that matter, perhaps his squad at large.

“I'm not going to play it down and say it's not nice when you get the recognition from your players that they really believe in you. I've never felt that nobody didn't, but when it's a public show, it's nice, right?” Cushing said of Bakrar later. “But the one thing I will say to him is, when he says to me ‘thank you,’ he doesn’t have to thank me. He has worked incredibly hard to get to our football club and make the step into MLS, and I watch him every day working incredibly hard to refine his ability.

“Never once did I think he wouldn’t score, never once did I believe that he isn’t going to be a top striker at NYCFC. For us it’s about making sure that we continue to work with him, whether he be on one goal or 10 goals, to really hone how he can be a top No. 9, because his potential is sky-high. You see his physical potential, you see the runs he makes, you can see how he’s learning the game.”

Identity first

This may be NYCFC’s best run of form since their capture of the 2021 MLS Cup title. Cushing revealed his group has responded to a talking point he constructed after sifting through the data from their disappointing ‘23 campaign and deployed again on Saturday after Cam Harper’s stunning equalizer just before the intermission.

“We have to continue to attack teams, because we're not a great team when we absorb pressure. We're not a great team when we get desperate to get out of here on 65 minutes with a one-nil lead,” said Cushing. “We took a punch tonight with the hit that went in off the bar before halftime. But I said at halftime, don't be disappointed. Go attack the game. Go take the game to them. It’s a mentality. We've got it in our legs, we've got it in our mentality, so we have to go do it. So I was really pleased tonight that we continued to attack the game, continued to create moments.

“The second goal really gave us the liftoff to win the football game.”