Games are won by scoring goals, but they’re lost by giving them up. Too often this season, this New York City FC buckled under pressure and let a win become a draw, or a draw become a loss. Not tonight. The defense held fast, and because Matt Freese, Birk Risa, and Thiago Martins did their jobs, Mounsef Bakrar, Andres Jasson, Santiago Rodríguez, and Talles Magno, could leave the field as heroes.
To be clear, the defense is still a work in progress. This was just the sixth game Risa and Thiago Martins started together, and they’re still developing the chemistry that any center-back pairing needs. But the early results are promising. After a rocky start in which NYCFC gave up five goals in two games against Minnesota United and FC Cincinnati, the team have now just allowed one goal in four matches.
The goalkeeper for those four matches was Freese, who surely established himself as the team’s starter after posting his third clean sheet in four games. Freese is still green – his decision to collect a high ball at chest height deep in the second half when surrounded by Orlando attackers was suspect, and his passing (58%) and accurate long balls (24%) in this game won’t get him carved into the side of the goalkeeping Mount Crushmore.
But Freese’s confidence and composure are what this team need right now. His two saves bring his season’s total to 17 in six games played, and he now has an eye-popping three clean sheets. But Freese’s aura is what makes him NYCFC’s No 1.
We hope Freese grows into his role. Risa and Thiago Martins are already comfortably filling theirs. For all of the testy feelings surrounding the recent departure of Maxime Chanot, the fact is that the club legend was a 33-year-old right-footed center-back playing out of position on the left.
You can see why NYCFC sporting director David Lee wanted to bring in Risa, a 26-year-old left-footed center-back whose ability to send diagonal long balls up to the right winger opens the game for NYCFC and creates trouble for their opponents. He only launched eight long balls tonight, five of which were accurate, but it was enough to force Orlando to play conservatively and not overly press the NYCFC midfield. Balance has returned to the Force.
Positional intelligence is the superpower that belongs to Thiago Martins. He’s not the quickest defender, or the most physical, but he knows where he needs to be. That was sometimes stretched thin when he was partnered last year with Alexander Callens, who could make wonderful runs into the attacking third and score exquisite goals, but who abandoned his defensive duties when doing so.
Thiago Martins is better partnered with another homebody like Risa, a player who likes to stay back and launch the ball with his feet rather than dribble up the flank. The truth is, even if NYCFC make the playoffs this season we should count all of 2023 as an extended preseason for 2024, when Risa and Thiago Martins should become one of the best defensive duos in MLS.
Elsewhere on Hudson River Blue, you will find the Game Recap for this satisfying 2-0 win. It will have plenty to say about the goals scored by Bakrar and Talles Magno, and what it was like to finally see the two of them on the field together. There’s no question that the attack won the game tonight, but you should take a moment to give credit to the defense for not losing it.