In what was a rollercoaster of a season for NYCFC, one consistent high point was the NYCFC defense.
New York conceded just 39 goals in 34 games. That was the second-lowest in the Eastern Conference, only behind Nashville’s 34 goals allowed. NYCFC impressively had one of the best defenses in MLS despite missing out on the playoffs.
Fewest Goals Allowed in MLS, 2023
Nashivlle SC *
Seattle Sounders *
FC Dallas *
Houston Dynamo *
FC Cincinnati *
New Jersey Red Bulls *
Orlando City *
* Advanced to the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs
The center-backs did their job
When veteran center-back Maxime Chanot departed the club in late August, many thought the defense would suffer due to his absence.
But the new center-back duo of Thiago Martins and Birk Risa worked out well. After Chanot’s departure, NYCFC only conceded four goals in their last eight games and also kept five clean sheets. Not a bad statistic to have after you lose your veteran defender who was with the club since 2016.
It is rather impressive how fast summer signing Risa fit right into the starting role in defense. The Norwegian adjusted to the MLS and its physical style of play quickly, but also has a knack for contributing to the attack with his accurate long balls.
Improvements from defenders
New York changed their formation multiple times throughout the season. Head coach Nick Cushing tinkered with a back three at times and used his fullbacks as wingbacks sometimes.
Tayvon Gray slotted perfectly into the defense and solidified himself as a starter this year. The homegrown defender started in 24 games, won 71.4% of his tackles, and made no errors leading to an opponent’s shot.
Gray’s positive form was rewarded with his first international call-up to the Jamaica national football team in September. The 21-year-old will most likely play a big role for NYCFC in 2024.
Kevin O’Toole and Braian Cufré rotated as the starting left-backs this year. Both did their job well, especially O’Toole, who is naturally a winger. It is unknown if Cufré’s loan will be made permanent for next year but if not, O’Toole should slot back into the defense nicely.
Justin Haak was also used as a center-back at times this year. For someone who is naturally a midfielder, Haak looked composed on defense. Of course it is natural that there would be some growing pains to the new position, but Haak did what he needed to do defensively. We also can’t forget about that banger he scored against the Columbus Crew.
The departure of long-serving goalkeeper Sean Johnson to Toronto FC was an additional blow to New York’s defense.
At the start of the season, Cushing chose Luis Barraza as the new starter. Barraza began the season in positive form, but as time went on, he began to struggle with consistency. Barraza was also criticized for slowing the play of the game down when he received the ball and his shot-stopping abilities.
Backup goalkeeper Matt Freese started to feature in more games and ultimately took the starting job at the end of the season. Freese ended the season with five clean sheets in ten games, a save percentage of 83.8% and a goals against average of 0.80. He looks confident and composed between the posts and provides leadership to the defense.
Freese played a big part in NYCFC’s strong run to end the season, especially with his diving save against the New Jersey Red Bulls in September. That save prevented New York from losing their third Hudson River Derby game this year.
NYCFC’s defense was not talked about enough this year due to the team’s struggles in attack. Ultimately, the defense put up impressive numbers and looked very promising.
It’s something to build on. Going into next year, it is nice to know that New York’s defense is in good hands.