Only 15 minutes had passed in New York City FC’s conference semifinal against CF Montréal, and already they were having to tear up the game plan.
An injury to centre-back Maxime Chanot meant the 3-4-3 formation that had been so successful for them in recent weeks had to be changed up, at least temporarily.
They switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation for the rest of the first half — a shape that allowed Montréal to create plenty of chances and saw New York struggle to assert themselves in the game.
A goal from Héber just before halftime to go with the one Maxi Moralez had scored in the sixth minute made interim head coach Nick Cushing’s job a lot easier than it might have been, and the team weathering the Montreal storm until halftime gave the head coach a chance to change things.
Even though reserve team centerback Samuel Owusu was on the bench, Justin Haak was given the task of slotting into the center of the back line. A behind-the-scenes video showed Chanot giving Haak some pointers on the tactics board at halftime.
What emerged in the second half was more 5-4-1 than the 3-4-3 seen in recent weeks, but this was partly forced by Montréal who continued to control the game in a general sense, even if they couldn’t take their chances.
NYCFC did look more comfortable in the second half, despite allowing Djordje Mihailovic to find the net for Montréal. By then Talles Magno had already converted a penalty kick to all but send City into the conference final.
It was a shame that the Chanot injury interrupted what had so far been a steady evolution of this 3-4-3 shape, which could reach its peak with the introduction of Anton Tinnerholm and Keaton Parks.
Parks’s inclusion would add a new dimension to the midfield and possibly allow Moralez to push further up the field and have more freedom to attack.
Tinnerholm offers a bigger attacking threat down the right than Tayvon Gray, but that’s not to say the latter wouldn’t be a useful option in this role if Cushing requires a slightly more defensive option. Gray could also have a place in this system as the right-sided centerback.
Cushing has given his thoughts on this formation in recent press conferences and interviews, which has helped expand on the external analysis around this system.
“There have been questions about the shape when we played 3-4-3 at New England and I think we’ve proven that it’s a good shape for us,” he said.
“The system gives us balance. The system gives us real offensive quality, whilst being defensively solid with the profile of players that we had available.
“The challenge is now that we have everybody fit is how we fit everybody into that system.”
That shape was present in that New England game and in the subsequent game against FC Cincinnati at Citi Field, but the structure provided by personnel who would become key to this setup was not quite there.
A sound structure eventually came, coinciding with the return of Alexander Callens to the side against Cincinnati, and appeared complete with the introduction of Kevin O’Toole in the Campeones Cup against Atlas FC.
Malte Amundsen could potentially perform similarly down the left flank, but O’Toole’s run in the side has shown how successful he’s been in carrying out the specific tasks required of this role.
Callens, meanwhile, seems somewhat irreplaceable given the fairly unique skillset he is currently offering from the left side of the central defensive three.
It has been said, only half-jokingly, that Callens is playing a role somewhere between defender and striker. The 30-year-old had only two fewer goals than Talles Magno in the MLS regular season this year.
Speaking to Glenn Crooks ahead of the Orlando City game, following on from the 2-0 derby win against the Red Bulls, Cushing went into some detail on Callens’ role.
“If you look at the balance of the team, Callens plays on the side of Nico Acevedo and Nico Acevedo is naturally a sitting midfielder, which frees up Alexander Callens to step past him and then go and make the game.
“With the energy and the technical ability he has, the physical ability and the speed, he can then go and play and cross the ball and can continue to run to get in the box.
“We [still] have numbers behind the ball with Thiago Martins with Maxime Chanot and with Nicolás Acevedo.
“I don’t think you see it so much on the other side because Maxi Moralez plays on that side. He will drop into the deeper spots to get on the ball, which almost blocks a line for Thiago Martins to step in. It’s Maxi that makes the game from that side, which naturally gives us balance in the team because we then retain Maxi and Thiago, and either Maxi or Nico, or then we can bring Tayvon inside.
“I think it’s using people’s traits. And Callens is a very free guy who wants to go and play doesn’t he? And then he is happy to turn and run back, and he has speed [to do so].
“I actually think he could be a midfield player. He’s a great defender, but with his technical ability he could be a midfield player where he plays and runs, and the guy’s got so much energy. He’s got the energy of three guys, so why not use it?”
The return of Parks has made this system look even more complete. Cushing spoke of “shifting” the new formation slightly against Atlanta.
“We shifted it a little bit today,” Cushing said following the 2-1 win in that final regular season game.
“You can see how we did that when you watch the game. I thought it made us more solid and gave us balance against a really good Atlanta team.”
It’s likely that the introduction of Parks to this system is the shift Cushing is talking about. As alluded to earlier, it allowed Moralez freedom to push further up the pitch, whereas previously the Argentine had been part of a double-pivot alongside Acevedo.
It could be said that this new look New York City has already passed its tests. It has helped the team win the Campeones Cup, defeat the Red Bulls in the most recent derby, qualify for the playoffs with a home tie in the first round thanks to a strong end to the season, and now reach the conference final.
But this success means further, bigger tests are just around the corner, starting with a meeting with the best team in the Eastern Conference during the 2022 regular season, Philadelphia Union.
Let’s see if the shape holds up against one of the most direct, intense teams in MLS. If it does, NYCFC will be contesting their second MLS Cup Final in as many years.