There's no sugarcoating how difficult a start to the season it's been for New York City FC.
Going into their Group A finale in the MLS is Back Tournament on Monday (9 am ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada), the Cityzens have no points from their first two matches after a 1-0 defeat to the Philadelphia Union and a 3-1 loss to Orlando City SC. But their struggles date back to the first two games of the league campaign before the MLS season was suspended, meaning NYCFC have now taken four losses in four games in 2020.
It's something of a confounding scenario for the club to be in given the talent on the roster. Most preseason predictions had NYCFC right up at the top of the Eastern Conference, even with a new coach in Ronny Deila. To hear midfielder James Sands tell it, the key to coming out of their early season troubles starts with doing a better job of sustaining their intensity over the course of a full match.
"Personally, the way I think about it is our team has so much quality," Sands told reporters on a conference call on Saturday. "Not one game we've lost this year I've felt like we've been outclassed, the other team never has better players than us, we're always more talented. The next thing you look at is: Is the other team outworking us? You could say Orlando for sure outworked us, at least in the beginning. Some of the other games we've lost we've just been outworked a little bit.
"I think just giving that little bit more will move us a lot in the right direction."
Still, at this point, the longer this losing streak persists, the more it's likely to get in the players' heads. That mental hurdle is something to be wary of, but Sands said his hope is that regardless of how things play out in the tournament, the adversity will prove beneficial down the line if they show they can overcome it.
"We're all thinking about it," he said. "It's the first time a lot of us have lost [this many] league games in a row. But we've talked about it. We can't think about past games, we can't play with all these nerves, we have to just go forward. If you look on the positive side of things, this might be in the long-term the best thing for us. Just learning how to fight through a tough moment, maybe [that's] what pushes us over the edge at the end of the season.
"We're always a team that plays well when things are going well and then when playoffs or something when they're not going well, we struggle. Maybe this experience will help us in those moments and maybe it'll bring us our first title, that's what we all help for."
In the short term, NYCFC are still theoretically alive to advance to the Knockout Stage, but to have a chance to do so, they'll have to take all three points against Miami. One returning face that they'll hope can provide a boost is midfielder Alexandru Mitrita, who returned to training this week after nursing an ankle injury. While star No. 10 Maxi Moralez will still be missing, Delia said in his media availability on Saturday that he expects to rotate his side in the hopes of finding the right ingredients to finally get a breakthrough victory.
"I think there's going to be changes. I think so," Delia said. "Mitrita is back again, that's a positive thing. And also we start to get more tired players, so we have to find the right setup for the game. It's not going to be exactly the same, I don't think so.
"First of all it's most important to win, to get a result. But of course we want to get through as well, and it's possible with three points. It's both things in our mind but of course to get three points is the goal."