One of the most common points of post-match discussion following New York City FC matches this season has been head coach Nick Cushing’s substitution decisions.
Questions regularly get raised as to why Cushing chose to not sub certain players in (i.e., Julián Fernández at Inter Miami CF), or why he didn’t make all five of his available changes, or why his New York City side remained unchanged as deep into a match as it did.
Even during the dispiriting, near-season-ending loss to DC United, it was hard not to question why NYCFC didn’t make any personnel changes at halftime, or why the team removed its striker, Mounsef Bakrar, for central midfielder Keaton Parks while down two goals in a must-not-lose match.
Substitutions are fertile ground for coach second-guessing, but the season-long focus on Cushing’s decisions made me wonder how NYCFC’s gaffer compares to his MLS peers. Where does Cushing actually rank league-wide in terms of substitutions used and when first substitutions get made in matches?
To find out, I went through the box score of every regular season MLS match played to date and noted the number of subs each team used and the minute in which each team made their first sub, then calculated averages and percentages based on all the collected data.
Here’s a rundown of how MLS head coaches have tended to use their subs this season, and how NYCFC’s manager compares to the averages and outliers.
Nick Cushing: Not a big subs guy
Coaches in MLS have made 4.2 substitutions per game on average this season, utilizing 83% of the subs available to them across the 950 regular season matches played to date in 2023.
Nick Cushing comes in below these league averages. NYCFC’s manager averages 3.66 subs per match and has utilized 73% of the subs available to him over his team’s 33 MLS regular season games.
Cushing’s substitution usage puts him toward the bottom league-wide when compared to other MLS managers at the helm for more than 10 matches, and an interesting mix of coaches join the NYCFC coach as substitution conservatives.
Fired coaches Bob Bradley of Toronto FC and Adrian Heath of Minnesota United FC used the smallest percentage of their available subs this season, the only two below the 70% sub utilization mark.
Cushing's 3.66 subs per match and use of 73% of his available changes is identical to Wilfried Nancy of Columbus Crew SC, both coaches making 121 in-game changes across 33 matches, with Jim Curtin of the Philadelphia Union one sub off their pace, having made 120 subs in 33 games.
Cushing is also one of the MLS managers least likely to use all five possible changes. Only Heath, Curtin, Bradley, and ex-New England Revolution coach Bruce Arena used the maximum substitutions available to them for a smaller percentage of their matches in charge than Cushing this season. Tenured (more than 10 in charge) MLS coaches have on average made all the subs available to them in 45% of their matches, so Cushing's 18% rate of max sub usage is noticeably low.
Is this a reflection of a shallow NYCFC squad that was short on game-changing or, in the coach's eyes, trustworthy options to insert into the team's usually-tight MLS matches? Whatever the reasons, the stats show New York City's head coach to be stingy with his substitutions.
The most substitution-happy managers in the league hit that five-sub mark well over 50% of the time and each utilized at or near 90% of the changes available throughout the course of the season.
Some coaches have leaned into the halftime change. It might be strategic to star in-game rotating at the interval, which still allows managers three additional "windows" to make further subs. That seems to be the case for Hernán Losada of CF Montréal, who has been extremely aggressive with his sub usage in terms of how early he makes his changes and how many changes he tends to make.
Halftime-or-before changes might also occur due to unplanned things like early-game injuries, red cards, or unexpectedly poor player performances. Teams toward the bottom of the Supporters Shield standings happen to be pretty well-represented among the heaviest users of at-or-pre-halftime substitutions.
MLS coaches on average have made their first change in the 57th minute this season, but some have a tendency to push deeper into the second half of games without making changes from their Starting XIs.
Nick Cushing is right around league average in terms of when he makes his first change in matches, averaging the 57th
Perhaps it pays to wait, or perhaps this just reflects teams with consistently good Starting XIs, because nine of the 10 managers above have clinched or, as of this writing, are in MLS Cup Playoff spots (sorry, Tata).
What to make of the numbers?
I'd caution readers not to reach to draw too many correlations between any of the data seen above and individual team and coach performances. These are the averages and trends seen from a season's worth of substitution data, but they don't capture the full story of each team and its roster or lineup situation.
Looking at all these data points does reveal some things about MLS coaches, and raises a few interesting potential points of comparison.
Nick Cushing's NYCFC roster turned over in a massive way from 2022 to 2023, and even throughout 2023 as established core players kept leaving and needing to be replaced. Might that have influenced Cushing's substitution shyness throughout the year? Did NYCFC consistently have five players on the bench early in the season that could have been inserted and made a difference against MLS competition?
Montréal experienced a roster tear-down comparable to NYCFC's after being knocked out by those same Boys in Blue in the 2022 Eastern Conference Semifinal. Yet their new manager, the aforementioned Hernán Losada, has pulled almost every substitution lever available to him this season, utilizing 90% of his available subs and making a switch during the halftime window in 63% of his team's matches.
Has Losada's penchant for in-game adjustments helped his team squeeze into playoff position? Being slower and less willing to make changes hasn't been detrimental for Jim Curtin or Wilfried Nancy, but it hasn't worked too well for Nick Cushing—which could be down to the personnel each coach has as much as it might be tied to their individual coaching philosophies.