New York City FC gave MLS observers ample reason to discount their MLS Cup title defense in August and September, sliding into a 1-6-2 tailspin after the summer departures of head coach Ronny Deila and star striker Taty Castellanos.
It looked like the gloom would deepen as they fell behind to Orlando City on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena, the house of their rivals that’s lately become their awkward part-time venue when Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are unavailable. Facundo Torres’ tap-in just after halftime put NYCFC in danger of a third “home” league loss of the season in Harrison, New Jersey, plus the extra sting of sliding further down the Eastern Conference bracket of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Then Alex Callens and Talles Magno – helped greatly by a midfield supersub display from Keaton Parks – stepped up with clutch goals to turn a stomach-churning deficit into an exhilarating comeback win that clinched the Pigeons home-field advantage in their first round of the playoffs, and presented vital momentum on the heels of the September international break.
“There's always a reason why you go through periods where you don't win,” said an elated Nick Cushing, Deila’s successor, afterwards. “Me and our staff, we have our opinions and you guys will have your opinions, and ultimately, we have to make decisions about how we get back on track. And one thing I will say is the group did an incredible job of making sure that the momentum, the enthusiasm, the energy, the togetherness, the belief, was there.
“So the break gave us the opportunity just to pull all those things together, and I think you see today, that was a great example of a top team spirit – 1-0 down and win the game 2-1.”
Cushing said he expressed his dissatisfaction with his team’s first-half display during the intermission, only to see them fall behind just minutes later in the 47th. It took persistence, resilience and a couple of aggressive substitutions to turn the tide.
“We consistently talk about how we play our best football, rather than the results, whether we’re one up, one down – how we continue to play to put the opposition under pressure so that we can one, control the game, and two, create chances, and I was really pleased with the performance," said the Englishman. “I said at halftime, I thought we had another level in us, we were a bit sloppy at times in our buildup and we turned balls over and were getting counterattacked.
“We made a couple of substitutions to try and inject a bit of energy, we know that Anton [Tinnerholm] is somebody that offensively gets us in really good positions, and Keaton Parks is Keaton Parks, he’s always going to give the team energy and his ability is really offensive. So we gambled a little bit in putting two real offensive players on.”
Talles Magno was chief among those earmarked to step into Castellanos’ scoring shoes after the Argentine’s departure to La Liga side Girona. And while the erstwhile winger looked out of sorts in the No. 9 role for long stretches, the 20-year-old Brazilian talent picked a great time to snap a nine-game scoring drought with his late angled finish on a swift NYC transition on Sunday.
“It really meant a lot,” Talles Magno, who's on 7g/9a this season, told YES Network in a fieldside postgame interview. “It just gives me a lot of confidence, scoring this goal. We played really well today; I want to thank all my teammates, and thanks to God as well.”
Beating Orlando, combined with their 2-0 Hudson River Derby win over the New York Red Bulls just before the international window, gives City hope they’ve vanquished the August rot, and conjures up comparisons to the dramatic autumn surge that powered their dash to MLS Cup 2021.
“It has the vibes of last season – we finished the season off strong and made a really deep run in the playoffs and ended up being champions,” said Talles Magno. “So that feeling is kind of there again with our strong performances. But we’re just looking to finish the season off strong and head into the playoffs.”
Though their home-venue situation will be subjected to extra uncertainty with the Yankees and Mets having also qualified for baseball’s postseason, Cushing said he’s keen to keep a nose ahead of RBNY and keep hold of third place with a positive result at Atlanta on Decision Day.
“If I'm really honest, being a guy that comes from England, the higher you finish up in the league, the better your finish in the league,” he said. “My staff, who are really experienced MLS guys, of course they’re looking at matchups and who’s playing where and who’s going to finish here, and of course you have to look at it really strategic. But for me, I want to finish as high as possible and I have a huge desire to finish third in the [East].”