Welcome to the latest edition of the Hudson River Blue Roundtable, in which Corey Clayton, Andrew Leigh, Matthew Mangam, Raf Noboa y Rivera, Mark Radigan, and Oliver Strand try to make sense of the 2023 New York City FC season.
Part 2 will run tomorrow.
1. Disappointed, but not surprised
Oliver Strand: Are you disappointed NYCFC didn’t make the playoffs?
Matthew Mangam: Disappointed, but not surprised. After the departures of key players like Taty Castellanos and Alex Callens, I knew it would be tough for New York. NYCFC felt the effects of them leaving and did not make up for it until it was too late.
Raf Noboa y Rivera: What Matthew said — disappointed and unsurprising. This was pretty much baked in when the Pigeons failed to win a game between April 22 and July 26. That’s a 17-game winless streak. Hard to overcome that!
Corey Clayton: Many of us have been on this crazy nine-season ride since Match #1 in Orlando in 2015. Going to playoffs in seven out of nine seasons, and winning an MLS Cup along the way, is something many MLS club supporters would be envious of. So, in perspective, you’re disappointed to miss MLS Cup, but not sad — as long as this is just a short hiccup/correction.
Andrew Leigh: I entered this season with lower expectations but still thought they’d be good enough to finish within the top nine. As this season progressed and the non-wins piled up, disappointment gave way to acceptance.
Mark Radigan: For me, this season was a disappointment because it serves as a missed opportunity. The departure of Taty Castellanos gave NYCFC funds to greatly re-invest in an already very experienced squad. Yet, the investments made weren’t poor per se, but weren’t the moves that helped NYCFC in the present.
OS: Taty left last year — was this squad doomed from the start of the 2023 season?
MM: New York also sold Héber, leaving the team without a real striker to begin the 2023 season. The club did it to themselves and took too long to sign a new striker.
RNyR: The squad wasn’t doomed. There’s talent in the roster. A good coach could’ve fashioned a solid offense out of the pieces here. As it was, they nearly made the playoffs, despite playing listless, disjointed soccer for the majority of the season.
CC: Gotta wonder if something in the winter transfer window fell through that caused this calamity of a season that left David Lee so unprepared?
Seems like the front office was scrambling for talent in the final week of the window, and all through the preseason — which led to players without proper time to gel in practice, and being unprepared on match day.
AL: Season always felt like it was going to feature a slow start due to the wave of post-2022 changes. I thought they’d get it together and post a more prolonged win streak post-summer signings, but that never materialized. Less doomed, more “always behind the 8-ball.”
MR: For me, this season was a disappointment because it serves as a missed opportunity. The departure of Taty Castellanos gave NYCFC funds to greatly re-invest in an already very experienced squad. Yet, the investments made weren’t poor per say, but weren’t the moves that helped NYCFC in the present.
The transfers took way too long to get done after the damage to NYCFC’s placement was already done. If more moves were made prior to the All-Star Break, I feel that this NYCFC would’ve made the playoffs comfortably.
The lack of movement only added to the growing discontent surrounding the club, which you can argue contributed to some of the rather dire draws and losses. This squad, on paper, should’ve been way more competitive than they turned out to be.
2. Can we agree 2023 was a rebuild?
OS: Can we officially call this a rebuild? The club and fans aggressively refused to use that word, and there was talk not only of making the playoffs but outperforming 2022.
That didn’t exactly work out as planned.
MM: When you lose at least five of your starters before the season starts, your team will definitely need to rebuild. The summer transfer window saw NYCFC make up for some of the pieces it lost in the previous winter. With the new signings adjusting to the team and MLS, it is clear the club is in the middle of a rebuilding process.
CC: They’ll never say rebuild formally — more of a renovation. Except, unlike when you’re renovating a house, NYCFC reno’d this house and forgot to wire it for electricity.
RNyR: Yeah, why not? Look, NYCFC will probably never do a full-on rebuild because the expectations all around are too high. But it’s clear this is a team in transition, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. I think you’ll get more patience and support from fans for doing that.
AL: “Rebuild” isn’t the same as “tanking,” and rebuilds don’t have to be guaranteed lost seasons, especially in a parity-focused league like MLS. Undergoing a rebuild shouldn’t excuse poor results and a poor season.
OS: Should the FO have managed expectations better?
RNyR: Maybe? There were significant holes in the roster. But David Lee’s excellent at finding talent; he found it. It’s on the head coach to maximize talent performance through training and tactics, and I think Nick Cushing’s performance here was abysmal.
CC: What would the front office say publicly? “Yes, it looks like we were asleep on the job this winter, but be patient?” No chance.
They sort of did this before Leagues Cup, hinting help was on the way — but except for Birk Risa’s solid play and sparks from Julián Fernández, not much changed. Bakrar has a long way to go to be the No 9 for NYCFC — they need a lot more help at center forward.
AL: Managing expectations would only happen if the front office actually said much of anything publicly. David Lee keeps everything close to the vest and only speaks about his team sparingly. Making it clearer that the team was incomplete and expectations were lowered might have, at the least, lessened the sense of surprise/disappointment some feel that Cushing is returning as coach.
MM: Yes and no. The front office felt that NYCFC was good enough to make a push for the playoffs and get in. I agree with that. But that works only if the expectations you have on certain players actually follow through. Talles Magno was expected to succeed at striker, didn’t happen. That is the root of the problems and is why New York did not make the playoffs.
OS: Last week, NYCFC issued a release stating support for Cushing and Lee heading into next year — basically, it’s corporate-speak for #CushingIn.
I still maintain that Cushing hasn’t had a full roster despite being in charge of the team for 16 months, and it’s hard to judge his performance when he loses the best goal-scorer in MLS one year, then the FO sells the team’s only attacking threat in Gabi Pereira the next.
Still, emotions run high on the topic of Cushing. I’m not going to ask you if you’re for or against him. Instead, I’m going to ask you to look into your crystal ball: How do you think Cushing will fare with this squad next year, presuming that new signings also join?
CC: There are likely 10 matches before May 1. Cushing needs 16 points or better (1.5+ ppm average) out of those or he’s fired. He’ll be on the shortest of short leashes with Sims/Lee — and a replacement likely will be waiting in the wings as soon as European football ends in May.
But with wild-card playoff teams getting into playoffs at 1.27 and 1.29 ppm this season, I worry the front office will lower their standards to keep Cushing on.
AL: I think Cushing will be the first NYCFC coach the team chooses to replace during a season. He’s getting more time and opportunities than most high-level managers with his record are afforded, but I agree with Corey that he’ll be on a short leash and his bosses will have replacement(s) lined up for the team’s first prolonged winless run.
MR: Even with the loss of major players like Taty Castellanos, there’s no excuse to constantly tinker with the lineup ahead of every match. Cushing’s meddling, particularly with the forward line, only decimates the team’s chemistry on the pitch. I feel that if that trend continues, NYCFC won’t improve and Cushing will be pushed out the door.
RNyR: To me, Cushing’s big issue is his inability to make a coherent whole out of the players he’s got, so I doubt new signings would help.
I agree with everyone else; he’s on the hot seat. I’ll actually give him until the first international window on June 3. If the Pigeons are struggling at that point, it makes sense to fire him. He’ll have had two full off-seasons to come up with answers, and at some point, you have to make a decision.
MM: If Cushing starts next year just like he did in 2023, I think he will be out the door by the summer. But, if he can get NYCFC to play like how they did in their wins against Orlando City and Toronto FC in September, the front office will probably be happy with his performances.
3. Glass half-full: What worked in 2023?
OS: Let’s go glass-half-full, or maybe one-fourth-full: What worked in 2023?
CC: Technically, since we had 41 points out of a possible 102, that’s a 40% full glass.
OS: Thank you for the correction.
CC: Sorry, I’m such a nerd. But this year’s team just FEELS like so many things didn’t work, clouded by Cushing’s tactical misfires. The team’s defensive effort may be the season’s only redeeming quality, and the glimmers of hope in new winger Julian Fernandez. I was very much hoping Maxi’s re-arrival and distribution skills would spark the offense, but alas, the season-ending injury nixed that.
Do the new Willets Point stadium sketches count as a positive? That place looks bangin’, as the kids would say. And ULURP sounds like the worst flavor of 7-Eleven Slurpee ever.
MR: The squad got value for their talent. Considering the level of talent sold from the MLS in recent years, and the fees clubs have received, a combined $25 million for Gabi Pereira and Taty Castellanos is great business. But, as I said before, I feel that money could have been reinvested better.
RNyR: Two things: One, David Lee continues to be one of the best talent spotters in MLS, and he’s well on his way to making this a complete roster. Two, the defense was fairly stout, and kept this team in games they otherwise would’ve lost, due to the lack of offense.
MM: Despite NYCFC missing out on the playoffs, the new signings worked at the end of the season. There is a lot to be excited about from the likes of Birk Risa and Julián Fernández. Talles Magno seemed to regain his confidence in the fall and New York may have found their new starting goalkeeper in Matt Freese.
AL: By the end of the season, it looked like they’d reassembled a decent squad. I agree with the consensus here that the new signings made positive differences, so the summer talent influx counts as something that “worked,” in the sense that expectations should be higher for improvement come 2024.
4. Glass half-empty: What didn’t work in 2023?
OS: Now for the obvious follow-up: What didn’t work in 2023?
CC: For all we’ve heard about the symbiotic connection between City Football Group and NYCFC, and their vast shared worldwide recruiting/scouting resources, they really dropped the ball on 2023 recruiting, filling the departing boots of SeanJohn, Callens, Tinnerholm, Taty, and later, Gabby Pereira.
Honorable mention for not working in 2023: Talles Magno as the No 9.
MR: Don’t even get me started on Talles. He’s the most naturally talented player in the squad by a country mile but never seems to show that talent outside of a few occasional glimpses.
MM: Plain and simple, it’s the attack. It’s hard to be harsh on Bakrar, but he definitely did not live up to the hype, especially at the end of the season. Talles Magno is not a natural striker, so you can’t expect him to live up to the hype of Castellanos. Cushing not giving Gabe Segal more playing time is something that hurt the team.
RNyR: The attack. I think there’s sufficient attacking talent on this roster that it shouldn’t have been this hard to generate offense. Sure, having a dedicated striker is nice, but it’s 2023 and plenty of teams manage to create and score goals without having an out-and-out striker on the roster. That’s on the coaching staff.
AL: Talles Magno flopping at striker was the most damaging “thing that didn’t work” of the season, with ripple effects felt across the entire NYCFC attacking front. I’ll also throw in a mention for Richy Ledezma and Braian Cufré, who came in on loan from Europe and on relatively high salaries by MLS standards, with expectations of becoming starters and vital 2023 contributors. Neither player delivered, Ledezma fading after a promising start to life in MLS, and Cufré not consistent enough to avoid losing his job to Kevin O’Toole by season’s end.
5. Best and worst
OS: Let’s discuss the best and worst moments for this NYCFC team this past year. Shall we start with the best? What was the single greatest moment this season?
MM: Overall, NYCFC’s defense was consistently good, minus the issues conceding stoppage time goals. The start of the season was promising, with good results against FC Dallas and Nashville SC at home, but after that, everything went downhill. The 2-0 win against Orlando City at Citi Field was probably the best moment of the season. New York comfortably defeated an Orlando side who were one of the best teams on the road in MLS. NYCFC’s defense was elite and Talles Magno ended his goal-scoring drought. Following that result, New York had a chance to make the playoffs despite its disappointing season.
CC: Agreed, the Nashville win at Citi Field was the high point of the season. Made us all think the team was firing on all cylinders.
RNyR: Hard to pick a “best” moment from such a thoroughly mediocre season, but I’ll go with the 5-0 pasting of Toronto in Leagues Cup. Literally, the one moment where we saw glimpses of how NYCFC used to play.
AL: Justin Haak scoring a banger in Columbus for the first Homegrown goal in club history. One or both of the late Gabe Segal equalizers? All three of my best moments were in draws, befitting of a season of 14 draws.
MR: One of the best moments for me was Gabriel Segal’s stoppage-time equalizer vs Columbus Crew. 94th minute. In front of the Third Rail. His second career MLS goal, his first career home MLS goal. It was a hell of a moment and some way to finish out covering my first-ever game with HRB.
OS: Now for the worst moment.
I’ll start: Giving up a stoppage time goal to Atlanta United on June 21 in a game that ended 2-2. It was their B Team, or maybe their C Team, a completely beatable team, and beating a beatable team would have brought some swagger back to NYCFC — and earned another two points, which we now know would have put them in the playoffs.
But a goalmouth scramble in the 90+5’ saw Atlatna’s Nick Firmino score his first MLS goal. He wasn’t really supposed to play. Firmino was an emergency roster addition from Atlanta United 2, and was basically brought in to fill out the lineup card.
It was a team-wide lapse that let him score, and that team-wide lapse threw away a brace from Gabriel Periera that could have seen the club get their first-ever win at the Benz. They were three minutes away from accomplishing something meaningful. Instead, they went all Giving Tree and sacrificed themselves to boost Atlanta’s confidence.
RNyR: Worst? Let’s go with the insipid 2-0 loss to an already-eliminated DC United. Just when the Pigeons looked like they were getting revved up, they lost to a worse team and effectively scuppered their flickering playoff hopes.
MM: In a season full of disappointing results, it is tough to pick one moment. But I agree with Raf, that 2-0 loss to DC United hurt really bad. NYCFC had a huge wave of momentum coming into the game and controlled their destiny to make the playoffs. New York fell flat and were defeated by a DC United side that were eliminated from the playoffs already.
CC: For me, it was a tie between the Gabby Periera departure announcement, which saw our team’s leading scorer and offensive spark take off, and the stoppage time failure in Miami that prevented us from getting a critical win and two extra points without Messi in the lineup – and were the final dropped points that kept us out of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
MR: Gabi Pereira leaving takes the cake for me. Up until his departure, the Brazilian was NYCFC’s best player, and one of the sole reasons the Boys in Blue were even competitive during the first half of the season. His departure, even for around $10 million, spelled the beginning of the end of NYCFC’s season.
Pereira himself said it was the best decision for his family and an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. But letting him walk basically out of the blue most certainly hit home for all NYCFC fans.
AL: Plenty of disappointing results to choose from for this question. It’s hard to pick a “worst” out of the multiple stoppage-time equalizers they conceded, I particularly hated the Columbus one given NYCFC had a man advantage, way out-created the Crew, and should have scored more than one goal on the night, and the concession at the death spoiled what should have been a match-winning first-ever Homegrown goal from Haak.
I think the 0-2 home loss to Minnesota United at Citi Field, and the uninspired attacking display in the 0-0 draw with the Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium, were the most costly results after Leagues Cup when the team looked to be in position to still sneak into the MLS Cup Playoffs.