The good times, on tap since 2016, finally stopped rolling for NYCFC, as the Pigeons failed to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since their inaugural season eight years ago.
It was a fate written last winter, when the team bid adieu to their starting goalkeeper, both starting fullbacks, their Defender of the Year-caliber left center back, their legendary No. 10 and their best No. 9, and then spent the entire winter mostly not replacing those guys.
It was all kind of shocking. Sure, NYCFC aren’t the Cosmos – they weren’t going to go out and spend absurd sums on 30-something replacements – but this team had done pretty amazing work with succession planning various pieces (up to and including coaches) over the previous seven seasons. One excellent player begat another, and then that pipeline just dried up for no other reason than the front office appeared to forget to keep the water turned on.
So head coach Nick Cushing was handcuffed by a roster that was incomplete for the vast majority of the year (maybe even all of it, to be honest). He was dealt a bad hand.
Now, he’s not without blame – he played that bad hand pretty poorly. Even with James Sands back, Cushing couldn’t figure out this team’s midfield balance, and they lost the ability to build out of the back in the way previous iterations had done so smoothly, and most of the young players stagnated or even regressed. All the hallmarks of what NYCFC were as a club sort of went up in smoke for about six months before returning, just a bit, for the final 10 games of the season.
By then, of course, it was too late.
And absolutely nobody is going to remember NYCFC’s 2023 for any of that. Know why? It’s because of this:
Ain’t she a beaut?
After almost a decade of stop-and-start-and-stop again when it came to building their own home somewhere in the Five Boroughs, early May brought the news everyone who cares about this league (and most especially all NYCFC fans) had been hoping for: they have the land, and they have a deal.
It’s scheduled to open in 2027. I am counting the days.
Formation & Tactics
Even with all the missing pieces, Cushing had this team come out of the gates playing the typical 4-3-3-ish 4-2-3-1 that both he and previous NYCFC coaches have used about 90 percent of the time since 2015. It became clear pretty quickly that they badly needed a true center forward – the Talles Magno false 9 experiment was destined for failure – and that while Santi Rodríguez was talented as hell, he wasn’t yet capable of the genius-level orchestrating that made Maxi Moralez one of the best No. 10s in league history.
So the formation morphed a lot over the months, from a 4-2-3-1 to a true 4-3-3 to a 3-4-2-1 to, at times, what looked like a 4-6-0.
They ended the season seventh in the league at 52.7% possession, which is the lowest single-season total (and placement) in the club’s MLS history. They also had the lowest field tilt in their history, and the second-lowest xG, and the fewest attacking sequences of 10+ passes.
They didn’t make up for it by pressing higher and harder, which had been one of their hallmarks under the previous three coaches. Last year, in the regular season, they won the ball 1,105 times in the attacking third. In 2021, it was nearly 1,200.
This year it was 915.
Everything about creating chances and putting the ball in the net was harder for the Pigeons this season.
NYCFC were dead and buried by late August, but then they did that Undertaker.gif for a month and made a real push for the playoffs. From Aug. 30 to Sept. 30 they played six times – three against playoff teams, two six-pointers against playoff hopefuls, and once against Toronto FC – won three of them, conceded two goals and took zero losses. Suddenly they were right back in it.
Rodríguez was very good in that game. Magno came off the bench and was awesome. And Mounsef Bakrar, the Algerian youth international center forward whose summer window arrival wasn’t particularly heralded, but whose presence keyed so much of the positive stuff from the other young attackers down the stretch, got himself a goal and really looked the part of a centerpiece.
From late April to late August, NYCFC won once in 17 games in league play. Across all competitions in that span, they won twice in 21.
That’s a Chivas USA-like run of form and the obvious low point. This segment could stop right there.
But I want to mention the other low point, which came at the very end of a 1-1 draw with Vancouver in early September. Moralez had come back to the Bronx in the summer window after an unhappy six months in Argentina, and while the beard had a little more salt than pepper, he was still the same guy – a joy to watch. Naturally, NYCFC were playing their best ball of the year upon his arrival.
Three minutes into second-half stoppage time, Maxi and Vancouver’s Ryan Gauld ran into each other at the top of the box (Maxi trying to get onto the end of a Rodríguez pass, looking for an equalizer, while Gauld was doing everything in his power to protect a road point). Maxi came away from the clash with a torn ACL.
No one, really. From the new ‘keepers to the new fullbacks to the new center backs to the new attackers, everyone spent most of the season looking meh and the final six weeks of the season looking pretty promising.
Five Players to Build Around
- Rodríguez (AM): He’s a full-time NYCFC guy now, just entering the prime of his career, and the ball’s gonna be on his foot.
- Magno (W): He should be a full-time winger now, and whenever he’s been able to play that spot off a true center forward, he’s been lethal.
- Sands (DM): Returned from Rangers early in the season and was his typical, steady self for club and country. Wore the armband a bunch as well, and it fit.
- Bakrar (FW): Doesn’t always look the part, but he knows how to find chances and how to occupy center backs, and that makes everyone in the NYCFC attack better.
- Julián Fernández (W): The 19-year-old joined midseason as a U22 Initiative signing from Velez Sarsfield, and seems to have the kind of talent that could land him near the top of next year’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list.
I could’ve added eight more names to that list above. Both veteran center backs (Birk Risa and Thiago Martins) are much more good than bad, a couple of the young fullbacks are impressive, and maybe Matt Freese in goal. If he can stay healthy, Keaton Parks is 100% in that group as well.
All those I’ve mentioned are under the age of 30. Expand it to the entire roster and the only guy in his 30s who should play a significant role is Maxi, if he can get healthy.
Now, some of the kids might be sold – as young winger Gabriel Pereira was, for a reported eight-figure fee this past summer – but the pipeline appears to have been re-opened, so I’m not going to worry too much about that.
Which means the offseason priority is 1) depth, and 2) an honest assessment of Rodríguez and Bakrar. Are they good enough to be the starting 10 and 9 on a trophy-winning team?
If the answer’s no, then the front office really does need to go shopping again this winter. And they need to bring the big checkbook.