Let’s hear it for New York.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
Since 2016, NYCFC have been the best regular-season team in MLS in terms of total points. Year after year of consistently good and often excellent soccer, year after year of developing young players into starters and often multi-million-dollar transfers, and year after year of spectacular playoff failure.
It’s not just that NYCFC had never won; it’s that they had never even come close, and it was damn near always their own fault. November was an annual horror show for this team.
And then, finally, it wasn’t. Finally they reached the promised land.
The journey itself wasn’t perfect, of course. But they generally played beautiful, effective soccer all year, continued that into the playoffs, and got a magnificent performance from Sean Johnson in what is, by definition, the clutchest of moments.
And now they are champions.
Formation and tactics
Ronny Deila had to play around with the formation a good deal more than he wanted to, I think, during the regular season because of injuries, international absences, late roster additions (this team was nowhere near complete by the time the season kicked off) and a fairly flagrant lack of depth on the backline. So there was a 3-4-2-1, and a 3-4-3, and a 4-3-3, and eventually – mercifully – a 4-2-3-1, which is what they ended the season in and rarely strayed from throughout autumn.
Whatever the formation was, the tactics were largely the same: get on the ball, keep it, and use it to pull apart whoever they’re facing. Get the wide players, either the fullbacks or wingbacks, forward in order to make the field wide as hell (except for that brief period when James Sands had to be an elbow back), and always find Maxi Moralez in the final third. Take advantage of Taty Castellanos’s movement and mobility to drag opposing center backs out of the 18, and send loads of runners off the ball into the box.
Defensively, press like hell and trust the structure of the team shape (and the excellent awareness of the cadre of deep-lying central midfielders) to clean up any messes.
I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: When NYCFC played well, I don’t think any team in the league was better than them. The underlying numbers agreed – virtually all of the advanced analytics had them as one of the two best teams in the league this year.
It didn’t always turn into the results it should’ve during the regular season, but it sure as hell did in the playoffs. How’s that for flipping the script?
They had some truly great regular-season performances, including a 6-0 evisceration of D.C. United in late October that stopped some pretty serious bleeding. But we don’t need to pretend it’s anything other than the playoff run, right?
Strangling Atlanta United to death at Yankee Stadium was predictable, but then going to New England (the record-setting Supporters’ Shield winners, with the most successful postseason coach in MLS history), Philly (defending Shield winners and CCL semifinalists, even if not full-strength) and Portland (veteran side with arguably the biggest home-field advantage in the league) back-to-back-to-back en route to the club’s first-ever trophy? That is the stuff legends are made of.
And while there were some spectacularly beautiful sequences of play throughout from this team – they have played pretty soccer dating back to Patrick Vieira’s arrival, which has continued first under Dome Torrent and now under Deila – we don’t need to pretend the biggest highlight is anything but the MLS Cup-winning PK shootout performance from Johnson, right?
I suspect any neutral reading this column will skip right over that video. I also suspect 99% of NYCFC fans will watch the whole damn thing because, I mean, why would you not?
On Aug. 28 they beat the Revs 2-0. Over the next eight weeks, right up until that 6-0 thumping of D.C. the Pigeons went 1-5-4 and fell from second to eighth – below the playoff line – in the playoff chase. That included a pair of 1-0 losses to the Red Bulls, a punchless 2-0 loss at Chicago and a brainless 3-3 home draw against Dallas. Over the final five games of that 10-match stretch, they managed to put the ball into the net just once.
It was like someone had dropped them off a cliff.
There was an obvious lack of sharpness; they just weren’t playing as well as they had been through the season’s first five months. That manifested itself in slower ball movement and slower/less penetrative off-ball movement, but mostly it was guys just not finishing. Even with the lack of sharpness, NYCFC were still creating chances; nobody was finishing them, not even Castellanos.
Obviously things turned out great, but for a while there… ooof.
Through his first ~4500 MLS minutes, Castellanos was one of the most profligate finishers in league history. Yes, he was a brilliant defensive forward, and both his link-up play and hold-up play were elite. His movement on both sides of the ball was clever and nonstop. He is any coach’s dream in so many ways.
And all that great movement and skill led to chance after chance after chance. Taty finds shots, and he takes shots, and those are the hallmarks of a good forward.
But Taty also misses shots. For a while it looked like he was going to be an all-energy and pressing option, but couldn’t be relied upon beyond that. That’d been the story during two of his first three seasons with NYCFC, and when the final whistle sounded on a 1-0 win over Montréal on July 21, it looked like it’d be the story of year three as well: Taty led the league in xG, but had just four goals in 13 games along with a nine-game scoreless streak.
He's since scored 19 goals in 23 games across all competitions, including all three of his playoff appearances. And these goals haven’t come in bunches – he’s scored in 15 of those games, and assisted in two of the others he didn’t score in. He's out there every game leading the press, running like mad to find chances, and converting them.
By season’s end, he won the Golden Boot presented by Audi with 19 goals and eight assists. His xG number for the year? 19.05.
There was nothing truly disappointing about this season other than the injuries (which ended the seasons of Anton Tinnerholm and Keaton Parks, respectively, while preventing Nicolas Acevedo from making any sort of meaningful progress), though I will nitpick and say it’s disappointing no one but Castellanos stepped up and became a regular goal-scorer.
Jesus Medina, who got off to a fine start, was particularly culpable in that regard. After scoring seven times in his first 14 outings, he managed just two more in 24 appearances across all competitions.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Sands (DM/CB/RB): Rock steady when he gets to play as a No. 6, and a more than adequate fill-in on the backline.
- Parks (CM/DM): Hopefully a full recovery is coming for the big man, who was equally comfortable as both a No. 8 and as a regista-ish 6 this year.
- Alex Callens (CB): One of the best CBs in the league this year, and ice-water in his veins if you ever need someone to convert from the spot.
- Santiago Rodriguez (W/AM): The 21-year-old took his time settling in, but he was one of the team’s best players throughout the playoff run.
- Talles Magno (W/FW): Seems Castellanos-esque in his final-third movement, though he doesn’t have anywhere near the same engine.
I didn’t list Taty because it seems like there’s a good chance he’ll be sold. I didn’t list Moralez, Johnson, Maxime Chanot or Alfredo Morales because they’re all over 30. NYCFC doesn’t really build around guys over 30. They just keep having to do so with Maxi because he keeps being so damn good.
But yeah, Taty’s their best player and Maxi’s their second-best. They might still be that in 2022, or Taty might be in Europe and Maxi might suddenly be old. Figuring out how to plan for that – can Santi be Maxi’s heir as the 10? Can Magno play as a full-time center forward, or will Heber be back to the guy he was in 2019? – is job No. 1.
Job No. 2 is adding meaningful center-back depth. Callens and Chanot both have been iron men for years, and Sands adds flexibility when he drops into the backline and splits them, going to that 3-4-2-1 look. That is excellent.
It’s threadbare behind them, though. Rookie Vuk Latinovich, who looked overwhelmed in his very limited minutes last season, is the extent of the center-back depth chart. That is it.
They have to pad that out just a little bit in order to make a meaningful run in the CCL, and then have any prayer of winning a Supporters’ Shield or defending their MLS Cup. They’ve been really good about creating depth everywhere else on the field; now they’ve got to find a way to give Callens and Chanot an occasional break.