It wasn’t your typical “last-place beats first-place” narrative given that the last-place team in question was NYCFC, the No. 1 regular season team in the East just last year. But their 1-0 win over previously undefeated Columbus Crew SC in Week 7 was notable and not just because it came in a Red Bull Arena that was decked out in sky blue:
Team meeting sparks NYCFC
Following the victory, NYCFC revealed the details of a meeting that took place after their most recent derby loss to the Red Bulls, involving a handful of team leaders – Alex Ring, Maxi Moralez and Heber – and their new coach, Ronny Deila.
It might help to explain the spirited display in the 1-0 win against Columbus which Deila called “amazing” and “unbelievably good.” Every NYCFC player gave up their bodies against Columbus, showing the kind of toughness that has sometimes gone missing for them in big moments in the past. As Deila put it, NYCFC wanted it “five to 10 percent more than them.”
”I felt after the game against Red Bull that there was something that we weren’t connected enough in what we did,” Deila said. “And [the players] were very clear and what style of play: being more in [the opponent’s] half and more offensive in mentality. I think that’s great for me because that’s what I want as well. It’s always about communication. Small things can make a big difference. One thing is what you mean to say and another is what gets received. But today I saw a team that takes responsibility and really, really was committed to each other and to the match plan.”
Ronny Deila congratulates Keaton Parks following NYCFC's 1-0 win | Vincent Carchietta, USA Today Sports
Based on the way the players spoke about the meeting, we might be looking back on it as the turning point of their season if they can continue to move up the East table in the 16 matches that remain.
”We’re all grown men and I think it’s important to be honest because a career is short and time is short and you shouldn’t waste time, look back and regretting it,” said Ring, the captain and goal scorer when asked about the meeting. “There’s no friction between the team and the coach and I think we showed that today. I think it was a productive meeting.”
”There were a lot of things said internally that really got us on the right track,” goalkeeper Sean Johnson added.
Winning without Maxi
And NYCFC did it without Maxi Moralez, their 20-assist man from last season. It’s only their second win without the Argentine in the squad since the start of 2019 (2W-3L-2D).
”Of course, we have a player who’s quite important for us who doesn’t play but had 20 assists and 10 goals last year,” Deila said. “And if you see the stats with and without him last year, you see he was quite an important player in offensive play. But I think we have managed to play without Maxi really, really good and we need to do that because he can’t play every game.”
Picking up the some of the slack were Jesus Medina, who had a couple of good moments early in the second half, and big-money signing Alexandru Mitrita, who seemed livelier and showed some good ideas in attack. He struck the crossbar and combined effectively with Heber throughout the match.
”I think Mitri was back today,” Deila said of the Romanian attacker. “He looked happy. He looked working hard both ways and with some good action for him. [If we can get him a goal or assist] he can create more.”
NYCFC's Alexandru Mitrita fires a free kick toward goal | Vincent Carchietta, USA Today Sports
The entire team performed better in a return to the lone forward 4-1-4-1 formation. NYCFC have lost on the two occasions that Deila has employed the two-forward set-up against the Red Bulls on August 20 and Orlando City SC on July 14.
”It’s more us to play in that way [with a lone striker] with wingers and a No. 10 (4-2-3-1) or with two No. 8s (in a 4-1-4-1),” Deila said. “We have played some really good games in this formation and most of our games in this formation.”
”The way we approached the game today was a little bit back to our roots, the way we want to play. Pressing high and creating more chances than the games before,” Ring explained.
”We showed who we were. We imposed ourselves on that game,” Johnson said.
Error proves costly
The match was decided on a lone goal which originated with NYCFC’s Heber intercepting a pass by Crew SC’s Aboubacar Keita to his fellow center back Jonathan Mensah in the 59th minute. Heber dished it to Ring, who easily slotted it home.
“It was actually strange on that play because my position I actually pointed to the goalkeeper,” Mensah said postgame. “But I think he didn’t look at the player close to me [Heber] before he passed that ball.”
”It’s just disappointing that we gave them a goal basically with a bad pass,” Crew SC manager Caleb Porter said postgame. “I think that’s a tough one. We haven’t made mistakes like that this year. Ideally, we want an opponent if they score, for it to be a good goal or they break us down and not get caught on the ball like that. Bouba will learn from it. Obviously, we support him. He’s a young player. If you’re a central defender you’re going to have mistakes like that, but you hopefully learn from it and not let it happen again.”
It's never a good time to concede a goal, but the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Crew, who just seconds before had inserted two subs that also allowed the talented Darlington Nagbe to play higher up the field.
The goal also put a damper on what had been to that point a good performance by the 20-year-old Keita, highlighted by two big plays: his bodying Heber off the ball in the box (10th minute) and a diving block on a Heber shot in the 27th.
“I just think it’s a bad pass. If he rolls it out to Jona [Jonathan Mensah] then we’re up the field,” Porter said when asked to explain the error. “[Keita] just underhit it. He played a square ball and it was underhit and the guy picked it off. He just didn’t hit it hard enough. We cycle the ball all the time from center back to center back. He just didn’t weight it right. If it was a firm pass then it gets to Jona and we’re up the field.”
Who was Porter talking about?
Crew SC were without regular starters Harrison Afful, Milton Valenzuela, Artur, Lucas Zelarayan and Youness Mokhtar due to injury or coach’s decisions, as the team manages a stretch of six matches in 21 days.
The lack of scoring chances and overall flow against NYCFC is in part attributable to the squad turnover. Porter also felt that some players underperformed.
”I don’t think we missed too much of a beat with [Sebastian Berhalter],” said Porter when asked about the rookie midfielder slotting in for Artur. “I think there were maybe other positions where we maybe didn’t have the best individual performances. So that’s something we’ve got to look at because in other games we’ve seen a little bit of better performances with some guys that we’ve rotated in. So we’re going to have to look at it for the future and think about that a little bit.”
Artur, Valenzuela and Afful eventually came on in the second half, but they couldn’t change the course of the match, a detail which was not lost on NYCFC’s Deila when it was pointed out to him that his team's win came against an understrength Crew side: “The others came on and it didn’t help them so much.”
Crew SC miss Zelarayan
There’s no two ways about it: Similar to NYCFC, the Crew are also a different team without their Argentine playmaker (above).
Although the Crew enjoyed solid passages of play during which they moved the ball well, they didn’t create many opportunities. What they had to show for their attacking efforts were two goals called back due to blatant offside infractions in the 10th and 91st minutes.
“Without a pocket winger – without Lucas – it’s a little easier [for the opposition] to take away that ball through the lines,” Porter explained postgame, noting how the Crew instead attempted to find center forward Gyasi Zardes in that same pocket between midfield and defense. “Unless we play through the lines into those pockets in between the midfield and back four, they can disrupt us.
“I think it was one of those days where again we missed that bit of quality in the tight spaces, in the layers,” Porter continued. “Lucas will help with that. Once we have the pocket winger and we have two guys inside [Zardes and Zelarayan], the options become easier and cleaner and it makes it a little more difficult for the opponent to stop us. But it’s something we’re going to have to deal with until we can get all the spokes in our wheel back going again like we like them.”