A very, very credible title defense.
A GIF is worth a thousand words:
“Develop and sell” is an ethos a lot of teams around the world live by, and a few teams around MLS. New York City FC have proved to be one of those in recent years, leveraging their position under the City Football Group umbrella of clubs (and the scouting advantages/access to elite youth talent from around the world) that comes with it to acquire, polish and move on a handful of players.
And coaches. That’s the thing that really sets the Pigeons apart – they are officially in the “develop (or rehabilitate) and sell coaches” business. Which, yeah, that’s tricky.
It felt like that was going to be the story of the 2022 season, one that included a very credible Concacaf Champions League run under Ronny Deila at the start and a very credible Audi MLS Cup Playoffs push under Nick Cushing at the end, and a super weird MLS regular season crammed in between.
The thing that made it super weird was the departure of Deila to take the reins at Belgium’s Standard Liege, which just about happened in conjunction with the departure of Taty Castellanos on loan to Spain’s Girona, another CFG club playing in LaLiga.
Add in the long-term injury suffered to Keaton Parks at the same time, and for about a dozen games there the Pigeons’ season seemed headed for la toilette.
The fact it didn’t is a testament to the depth of talent on the roster and the clarity of CFG’s principles of play across clubs and coaches. Things did change under Cushing, but not so much that they became irretrievable.
And in the end, that meant NYCFC were still NYCFC: real good and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Formation and Tactics
You know the tactics, and you’ve known them since Patrick Vieira took over ahead of the 2016 season: put a bunch of skilled players out onto the field, get onto the ball a ton and use it. Press high to win it back as soon as possible, and then do it all over again.
This really did change a bit under Cushing, at least for a while, as NYCFC virtually stopped pressing through the summer (the departure of Taty, who is the best pressing forward in league history, had a ton to do with the drop-off) and subsequently struggled to get pressure to the ball anywhere. But come the stretch run, they rediscovered like 85% of who they’d been under Deila.
Part of that rediscovery was the formational flexibility Cushing showed, eventually morphing the standard 4-3-3ish 4-2-3-1 that had long been the team’s preferred shape into a 3-4-1-2ish 3-4-2-1 over the final six weeks (or so) of the season, and into the playoffs.
But for more than any other team in the league, it was really difficult to put numbers to whatever NYCFC’s formation was at the end there because it was all so flexible, and managed to be so on the fly.
Armchair Analyst: Full build-up to Maxi goal v Miami
Is that… is that the greatest team goal in MLS Cup playoffs history? I kind of think it is! And that’s saying something given the glorious team goals we’ve seen in the playoffs just this year (Montréal’s winner vs. Orlando, LAFC’s first vs. LA and LA’s second vs. LAFC all come to mind). There has been some spectacular soccer played by a lot of teams.
There were other great moments, of course. Winning two series in the CCL (and doing so in East Hartford) counts, as does the almighty tear they went on in the league once they were bounced by the Sounders in the semis. The Hudson River Derby win in mid-September, which came just days after Gerhard Struber had guaranteed a win for his Red Bulls, must’ve been mighty sweet as well. And then, of course, there was the trip up I-87 to face a very, very VERY good CF Montréal side in the Eastern Conference Semis, and the ruthless efficiency the Pigeons showed in dispatching them 3-1.
And yet none of the above touches that goal against Miami. Goals like that are why we watch the game. Champagne football.
This is not how you want to let it slip in the postseason. If they hadn’t conceded then, I honestly think they hold on and I’m writing about the Union this morning.
But ok now that we’re down deep in this story a bit, and I’m pretty sure no Sounders fans are reading anymore, I’m going to be brave and say the actual lowlight was the CCL series against Seattle, because NYCFC were honestly just a better team. They should have won that series.
Yes, I understand they’d already logged a million miles by that point and played “home” games at five different stadia, but THEY WERE THE BETTER TEAM!! And if they’d won, they’d have pumped Pumas, and they’d be going to the Club World Cup before Manchester City got there, and my word wouldn’t that have been hilarious?
They didn’t win, though. And while everyone justifiably remembers Stefan Frei’s greatness in the second leg, it was the complete no-show by the Pigeons in the first leg that ultimately decided the tie. They looked dead on their feet, and the Sounders got the bit in their teeth, and that was that.
NYCFC play at a higher-stakes table than most of the rest of the league when it comes to the type of young talent they import, so it doesn’t really come as a revelation when guys like Talles Magno (I thought he was the league’s best winger in the first half of the season) or Santi Rodriguez (I am no longer worried about their post-Maxi No. 10 plans) turn into legitimate stars in this league.
Gabriel Pereira, though… man, this kid’s a bolt of lightning. The 21-year-old Brazilian right winger wasn’t cheap – he came in on a reported $5 million transfer fee from Corinthians – but we’ve seen guys enter the league on 3x that amount and deliver less than half as much. It wasn’t just the production (8g/4a in 1,350 regular-season minutes, and then another goal in the playoffs), but the way he immediately fit into and enhanced the overall scheme.
The short version is this: Most young wingers either always want the ball to feet (Magno is this way), or always want the ball into space (Thiago Andrade is this way). Pereira can and does do either, and naturally flips back and forth between pushing the backline and dropping in to be a secondary creator no matter the phase of play.
He has an uncommon soccer IQ for a kid in this position. I will be zero percent shocked if he doubles his numbers and makes a run at a Best XI nod next year.
I can not say the same for DP center back Thiago Martins, who evolved from “tragic” at the start of the year to “below average” by the end (that’s him completely blind to the run on Carranza’s goal).
If he’d been as good as he was billed as when arriving from Yokohama F. Marinos, CFG’s team in Japan, NYCFC would still be playing.
Five Players to Build Around
- Pereira (RW): Best XI-caliber talent.
- Magno (LW): Best XI-caliber talent.
- Moralez (AM): Probably the best brain in the league, and he sure looks like he’s got another 2,000+ minutes in his legs.
- Parks (DM): If they can get him fully healthy for real, he’s arguably the best d-mid in the league (though he does need a ball-winning partner).
- Heber (FW): 8g in 1,000 regular-season minutes, and then two more in the playoffs.
Is Rodriguez, who’s been in town on loan from another CFG club (Torque in Uruguay), coming back? Are they really going to keep trying to force Magno into a No. 9 role when he’s clearly so much better on the wing, and when they’re clearly so much better with Heber (or a similar, truer center forward-type) out there? Can they keep their best guys healthy?
Answering all of the above is important. More important, though, is keeping goalkeeper Sean Johnson, center back Alex Callens and right back Anton Tinnerholm, all of whom are out of contract and eligible for free agency.
If I have to pick just one of the three to keep, it’s Callens. When he was fit and actually playing as a CB (Cushing moved him to LCB, and then eventually to a weird hybrid LB role down the stretch) he was the best in the league and would’ve gotten my vote for Defender of the Year this season.
Given how some superb work in last winter’s free agency market helped turn LAFC around, I have to imagine there will be something of a feeding frenzy around these three guys in the coming window.