For the second time this season, New York City FC held the New Jersey Red Bulls scoreless in a tactical masterclass by a squad that controlled the game from the opening whistle. In July’s Hudson River Derby, it was a shock 0-1 win at Red Bull Arena over a high-pressing New Jersey team that had grown accustomed to using NYCFC as a punching bag and wrongly expected the Pigeons to fall apart in transition. Last night, it was a commanding 2-0 shutout in front of more than 30,000 fans at Yankee Soccer Stadium when an overconfident Red Bulls looked completely unprepared to play a team that have rediscovered their form.
It was as if Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber made the delusional decision that his side was going to play the NYCFC that lost to lowly DC United at Red Bull Arena on August 31, and not the NYCFC that beat Liga MX champions Atlas FC on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium to win the Campeones Cup.
But soccer has rules, and one of them is that the opposing coach doesn’t get to pick your lineup. NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing put out a Starting XI that closely resembled the impressive squad that won the Campeones Cup, and Struber’s Red Bulls buckled within seconds of the start of the game.New Jersey gave up a corner while the broadcast announcers were still making introductions, and Alex Callens headed in a goal with less than one minute showing on the clock.
The goal was a near-copy of the one Callens scored off a corner in the fourth minute of Wednesday’s game against Atlas. Where the Atlas goal was a little scrappy, this was composed and scored off a flicked volley from Santiago Rodríguez. If Wednesday’s goal was the draft, yesterday’s was the final.
Does Struber not review game tape? Or did he fail to prepare his team to defend against the exact same play that NYCFC executed so efficiently on Wednesday? Either way, Rodríguez scored on a corner kick in the 23rd minute, and New Jersey were forced to chase a game that Struber had guaranteed would be a Red Bulls win.
Let’s give credit where it’s due: This was more a Cushing triumph than a Struber failure. The NYCFC coach once again demonstrated a tactical acuity that was missing during the Ronny Deila era. Still, it didn’t hurt that the Red Bulls were as arrogant as they were ill-prepared. If only all of NYCFC’s remaining opponents would underestimate the club this much.
NYCFC: 5 shots, 3 on goal, 55.6% possession, 443 passes, 71.8% accuracy, 8 fouls
Red Bulls: 9 shots, 1 on goal, 44.4% possession, 346 passes, 65.3% accuracy, 19 fouls
New York Is Blue
Rationally speaking, a derby like this one is just a league game with three points at stake. Yesterday’s win helped New York City firm up the club’s grip on home-field advantage in the postseason. Nothing more, nothing less.
Emotionally, it’s a different story. The Hudson River Derby feels like a playoff game with a lot at stake. It’s not just the bragging rights, although it feels good to say that New York is blue. It’s the tense history between these two clubs: The brawls, the blown calls, the painful results. Not only did New Jersey serve NYCFC with the biggest loss in club history, they have dominated New York City like no other team in MLS.
NYCFC vs Red Bulls by head coach, MLS league games
That’s why yesterday’s result resonates far beyond the three points earned by New York City. It goes a long way to correct the record against a team that insist on calling themselves the New York Red Bulls for marketing reasons even though their entire operations are located in New Jersey. In this game, Cushing demystified a legitimately good Red Bulls team that at times seemed to win games through the sheer force of their aura. Last year, Deila got NYCFC over the postseason yips that derailed previous squads and taught the team that they can win a tournament; this year, Cushing established that New York City’s domination of the Red Bulls, and that it’s possible to suffocate the frantic pace of a transition team while playing an attractive and entertaining game.
It wasn’t just what Cushing said and did, it’s what didn’t say and do. The mind games leading up to yesterday’s contest were almost as enjoyable as the match itself.
It started with Struber’s pre-game press conference earlier last week, when he referred to NYCFC as “City Group,” and reportedly said, “It is crystal clear that we will win this game.” Evidently, Struber is unfamiliar with the idea of hubris, or hybris, as they say in Austria.
You could understand his overconfidence. While NYCFC were on a near-historic bad run of games, the Red Bulls were posting convincing wins over tough opponents — only league-leading Philadelphia Union gave them trouble.
Cushing responded in what we now recognize to be his characteristically understated and witty fashion. In a press conference on Wednesday, Cushing used empathetic language and tone to throw a little shade at the Red Bulls coach. “He’s obviously confident,” Cushing said. “Listen, I expect it, and I expect it because arguably the greatest ever performance of an NYCFC team against a Red Bull team was in their last defeat. Look, when you lose derby it’s hard. I think for him when he lost the way that he lost I think that’s difficult.” Translation: Stuber said what he said because his team was a miserable failure the last time they faced us.
It didn’t stop there. Later in the week, Cushing was vague about player availability and who might be in the Starting XI. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson was questionable, he said. Ditto center-back Maxime Chanot. Kevin O’Toole, who was a revelation in his surprise start on Wednesday against Atlas, was a little too green to play in a high-stakes MLS game like this one.
But when Match Day rolled around, Cushing put out a lineup that looked very much like the one that controlled the game against Atlas: Alexander Callens, Chanot, and Thiago Martins played a three-back, O’Toole and Tayvon Gray on the wings, Maxi Moralez and Rodríguez in the midfield. Sean Johnson got the start in goal.
Did Cushing wrong-foot Struber, and he always intended to play three in the back? Or was the team’s player availability up in the air until the last minute? It’s hard to say, but the sly smiles that Cushing is having a hard time keeping off his face point to the latter.
Cushing’s lineup worked. The Red Bulls couldn’t pressure NYCFC’s veteran back line, and they couldn’t contain New York City’s free-flowing attack. So what if NYCFC’s strikers aren’t producing? A team goal counts just as much as one scored by somebody in contention for the Golden Boot. Good thing NYCFC are scoring team goals these days.
It was different on the red side of the field. Struber played 20-year-old Elias Manoel as a lone striker even though the new signing hasn’t scored a goal for New Jersey since joining the team this summer, and passing sequences died at his feet. Luquinhas was a shadow of the playmaker who ripped apart MLS in the summer. USMNT regular Aaron Long was inconsistent in the defense: Zero tackles, zero ground duels. Long and fellow center-back Sean Nealis were flat-footed during both of NYCFC’s goals.
Safe to say, Cushing got more out of his team. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.
The playoff picture
While NYCFC didn’t officially clinch a playoff spot with this win, they currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and are on the cusp of making their seventh straight appearance in the postseason. Theoretically, NYCFC could be knocked out but that’s only if they lose both of their remaining games, and Orlando City win two out of three, and Columbus Crew win three out of four, and Inter Miami win all of their last four.
We’re not going to jinx NYCFC’s playoff hopes, especially after their horrifying run of form recently, but this win over the Red Bulls goes a long way to lock in another postseason. If NYCFC get one point from their remaining two games they are assured a playoff spot, and another win will set them up for a top-four appearance and a first-round home game.
There’s even a chance of NYCFC overtaking the Red Bulls and climbing into third place. New York City trail New Jersey by just one point, and both teams have two competitive matches left in the season.
A comprehensive home win in front of 30,000 fans that resonated emotionally and important playoff implications? Not a bad way to enter the international break.
NYCFC, Alex Callens 1’
NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez, 23’
Red Bulls, Lewis Morgan, bad foul, yellow card, 25’
Red Bulls, Kyle Duncan, bad foul, yellow card, 28’
NYCFC, Nicolás Acevedo, bad foul, yellow card, 46’
NYCFC, Maxi Moralez, foul, yellow card, 63’
Red Bulls, Cristian Cásseres Jr., foul, yellow card, 86’
NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez, bad foul, yellow card, 89’
Red Bulls, Daniel Edelman, foul, yellow card, 89’
Referee: Allen Chapman
Assistant Referees: Jeremy Kieso, Jose Da Silva
Fourth Official: Silviu Petrescu
VAR Referee: José Carlos Rivero
Assistant VAR Referee: Joshua Patlak