Is Ronny Deila's message to NYCFC players finally starting to come across?

By several accounts, a major difference between New York City FC manager Ronny Deila and predecessor Dome Torrent has been Deila's desire for players to adhere to a specific structure at the expense of improvisation.

NYCFC's last two victories suggest the message is starting to get across.

As the club prepares for Saturday's MLS is Back Tournament quarterfinal against the Portland Timbers (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, TSN), Deila suggested as much in his evaluation of his side as a whole and individual players.

There was, for example, a blunt assessment of forward Valentin Castellanos' performance in a 3-1, round of 16 win over Toronto FC, in which the Argentine scored his first goal under the Norwegian.

"The difference between what Taty did now and what he did for three games ago is like, you know, he start to do his job," Deila said in remarks to the media on Thursday. "And that was to press the two central defenders and No. 6 player together with the other striker or No. 10 player, instead of running at fullbacks and all over the pitch. So the discipline and the organization was really, really good."

And there was his overall opinion of what the most recent two wins over Toronto and Inter Miami CF before that mean for the club's trajectory.

"I see changes in a lot of things, but culture takes time," Deila said. "And also when everybody is new to each other, then we take time to get to know each other. Having said that, it’s not that black and white like you journalists often [see]."

The need for a culture change—or at least a tweak—might be hard to discern for casual NYCFC followers. The Cityzens have finished in the top three in the Eastern Conference the past four seasons, including finishing in the top spot of the Eastern Conference in 2019.

But as goalkeeper Sean Johnson is quick to note, NYCFC are now as close as they've ever been to winning a trophy. The club have struggled previously in knockout play under Torrent and Patrick Vieira before that, advancing past their MLS Cup Playoff starting point exactly once in four previous appearances. It hasn't been much better in the U.S. Open Cup.

"Having the opportunity to win a trophy is something I take extremely seriously," Johnson said. "It’s something that we strive for for a long time now. We’ve put ourselves in a position now where three wins and we’re going to be champions. So I think it’s important to put it all into perspective and take advantage of the opportunity and look ahead.

"I think Portland is the next step in that journey and we can’t look too much further past that. But we can look to past experiences to make sure we’re doing the things necessary to put ourselves in the best place to succeed in this tournament."

Deila knows it's not as though the nature of all NYCFC's losses in 2020 owed to bad performances. He praised the effort in a disappointing Concacaf Champions League loss to UANL Tigres before COVID-19 brought play to a halt in March, as well as two group stage MLS is Back losses when his side were wasteful and unlucky more than poor.

He also clearly believes the players in the fold are good enough. That of course includes Maxi Moralez, who has been limited because of a calf injury that is still causing lingering tightness, Deila said. Moralez made his tournament debut with a 54-minute shift off the bench that included a goal and an assist.

"If Maxi is 100 percent ready he starts the game," Deila said. "He’s a very important player for us, but nobody is good enough when they are 90 percent. So we need to get Maxi at 100."

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With or without Moralez, the Cityzens are on better footing than two matches ago. Now it's about keeping it, and perhaps embracing their new coach's MO in the process.

"Now we have to be stars, not fireflies," Deila said. "Fireflies last for a day, stars last forever. You have to do the same things over and over again, then you have to be a top top team."