About three months ago, it became clear that if New York City FC are to hit the reset button and salvage the season, it would happen in August when Leagues Cup play is underway. For a hot minute it looked as if NYCFC could accomplish this while advancing through the tournament, but who were we kidding? All it took is a 24-foul performance from the New Jersey Red Bulls to remind this NYCFC team that they’re still a couple of players away from regaining the composure that have made them one of the most consistently excellent teams in MLS.
Besides, NYCFC have yet to incorporate their new signings. The club added five senior players to the roster in the transfer window that closed last week — a striker, two wingers, a defensive midfielder, and a central defender. (There are whispers that midfielder Maxi Moralez will return to New York City, but for the moment they remain only rumors.) Only one of those players, striker Mounsef Bakrar, was eligible to face New Jersey, and he made the Starting XI. Three others were waiting for visas, while defensive midfielder Andrés Perea, who joins NYCFC on loan from Philadelphia Union, was roster-tied to his old team. The new-look NYCFC we’re waiting to see was never going to take the field.
That’s OK. Crashing out of Leagues Cup will give head coach Nick Cushing a little over two weeks to work with the new players, and iron out some issues with the existing squad. He’ll need to win at least 17 points in the team’s remaining 10 games if NYCFC are to make the playoffs. (More on that below.) It can be done, theoretically.
Starts need to act like starters
The truth is, this team has been in flux since opening day. Cushing has used the same Starting XI exactly twice in 28 competitive matches, and that happened four months ago, when the team faced the New England Revolution on April 1 and Atlanta United on April 8. Injuries, inconsistent performances, questions about who fits where: This is a team that never looked settled.
Now it’s time for Cushing to establish his best starting lineup. That begins with the goalkeeper — Luis Barraza started 23 of NYCFC’s 28 games, but he never locked down a position that was his for the taking. Matt Freese is making a case for himself with his recent performances against Toronto FC and New Jersey in Leagues Cup games, and he seems to be the favorite going into the resumption of the MLS season on August 20. One of the two needs to look and act like a starter, and settle this issue once and for all.
Talles Magno also needs to look and act like a starter. The 21-year-old might be one of NYCFC’s three Designated Players, and might be one of the highest-valued players in MLS (Transfermarkt pegs his transfer fee at €15 million), but he astonishingly has yet to establish himself as a regular in the Starting XI. The hope is that Bakrar doing No 9 things (make runs, create space, score goals), will free Talles Magno to do Talles Magno things (dribble through defenders, create chaos in the box, score goals).
That remains theoretical for now. It’s up to Talles Magno to put theory into practice.
Incorporating the new kids
Then Cushing needs to do the impossible, and integrate the new signings into a fluid, fully-functional team. Honestly, this is something that NCYFC have never done before.
This is a club that take their time with new players. Taty Castellanos made eight appearances with the club in 2018 before becoming a regular starter in 2019. Santiago Rodríguez was eased into the squad in 2021 — he joined the club in June, and made six substitute appearances before logging his first start two months later. New signings simply aren’t expected to hit the ground running.
But that’s not a luxury the club can afford this year, at least if they plan to make good on their promise to keep the team’s playoff streak alive. Bakrar will need to score goals, and Alonso Martinez and Julián Fernández will need to do the same on the wing. Perea will need to put in shifts in the midfield, especially if Keaton Parks takes time off to be with his family. Birk Risa will quickly need to develop an understanding with Maxime Chanot and Thiago Martins in defense, although his addition to the team is less pressing than those of the others.
Cushing will need a team that have trouble scoring goals to start scoring lots and lots of goals. And he’ll need to do that after losing his top goal-scorer. True, he added three players who, on paper, should be able to score goals. But just as with Talles Magno clicking into gear, that remains theoretical for now.
Also theory: NYCFC could make the playoffs.
New York City have 26 points after 24 games, and are just four points off the last playoff spot. The postseason is within touching distance.
It helps that the final spot right now belongs to DC United. The club is expected to part ways soon with striker Taxi Fountas, a dangerous goal-scorer with an unfortunate habit of allegedly saying racist things to his teammates and opponents. DC United are vulnerable.
It doesn’t help that three teams sit between NYCFC and ninth place: Charlotte FC, Red Bulls, and CF Montréal are all in the way. A more clinical and opportunistic New York City would have dispatched all three of them with a couple of easy wins, but the fragility of this NYCFC means they are looking up at teams they normally cast aside.
Even more concerning is Inter Miami. The team have just 18 points after 22 games, which puts them in dead last for all of MLS, but based on what we’ve seen of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba in Leagues Cup games, you could see them winning game after game once MLS restarts. Could they go 12-for-12, and take all 36 of their possible points? Yes. They could also let four games slip away and grab 24 points, and slide into ninth place.
That means NYCFC will need to make corrections for wind speed and terrain and aim for eighth place. Could they go 10-for-10, and take 30 points to bring them to 56? Sure, why not. A more realistic number is 17 points, which is the minimum they will likely need in order to make the playoffs according to the excellent False 9 that Corey Clayton published here in Hudson River Blue.
That works out to five wins and two draws, or six wins. It can be done.
In fact, NYCFC did it just last year — when Sean Johnson was the undisputed starting goalkeeper, Taty was the most dangerous striker in MLS, and Pereira was scoring goals.
Could this NYCFC do it? Theoretically, yes.