Hudson River Blue spoke with New York City FC interim head coach Nick Cushing for an exclusive interview at the Etihad City Football Academy training facility in Rockland County, NY where members of the First Team were preparing for Sunday’s matchup against CF Montréal in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Note that this interview was edited for clarity.
Hudson River Blue: Congratulations on Monday. It felt like the most complete win of the year, and we really saw the quality and chemistry. Is that the result of how they’re playing, or is that something you’re cultivating in this team?
Nick Cushing: I think it’s a bit of both. Winning really, really helps. And when you win it breeds belief. People continue to do the things that they did last week, and they don’t question things. It’s just a natural progression. You keep doing the same thing, and you add a little bit more, and you get better.
One thing I’ll say about this team is since I’ve been here, our highs are really, really high but our lows are far too low. We have to bridge that gap. You look at 2020, and we lost the first six games, then we went on a good run, then we had a disastrous finish at Orlando. Then last year did OK at the start, then we had that really bad period, then we finished incredibly well. It’s the same this year.
How we bridge the gap in the middle for me is the big question, and we have to look at that. We have to make sure we fix that moving forward. Because what this team has proven is when it’s wedged into a corner and it’s almost at a breaking point is when the magic really happens, but we don’t want to rely on that, because the problem is you don’t finish first then. You can win a playoffs, and you can get into the playoffs, but you don’t get the consistency which gives you the Supporters’ Shield. You have to aim for that.
The chemistry? Inside we did a lot of work trying to build chemistry between the front players. We did a lot of work in what was going to be a system that would really fit the strengths of the players that we have, and this 3-4-3 system fits with the three central defenders we have. They’re so dominant.
Then we have real intensity down the side with Kevin O’Toole and Tayvon or Anton. And what it does is it gives us either Keaton or Nico, or Maxi or Keaton, or one really offensive player and one player who will give us balance, and then the three front players, whether it’s Héber, Talles, Gabby, Santi, Thiago, even Matias Pellegrini – he’s been unfortunate because he’s been training really well – it puts players in the places they want to be.
HRB: In the now famous 19-pass team goal we saw a lot of trust within the team. Even Kevin O’Toole, who until recently was with NYCFC II, was an important part of it. We saw selflessness in Maxi and Santi, who at the points in the season would have probably held onto the ball a little bit more because they would have wanted to do a little bit more on their own. Instead, they’re trusting each other and the team in a way that feels fresh.
NC: We’ve done a lot of work as a coaching staff with the front players on trying to build chemistry. When I look at the likes of the Charlotte home game, the DC home game, we were critical of the team for not playing with flow and not playing with a real rapport between the front players. Not making unselfish runs, and always wanting the ball to feet so that they could do what they wanted to do. We did a lot of work on that, we asked the players to work together. There was a lot of work on the training field, a lot of work in the video room.
In the end you become accountable as a coach and as a team, you become accountable to the guys you have in there. We’re really lucky with the likes of Santi, Gabby, Héber, Talles, Maxi, the guys have really embraced it. Those guys have done a lot of work with each other away from the coaches, having discussions. Maxi is giving his experience, the young guys give what they believe is right — of course they have a lot of enthusiasm and freshness they want to bring in.
I think Santi and Gabby have really, really built a rapport and that feeds into everybody else. They’re so technical, and so dynamic. The Miami goal is a real recognition of the work that they have put in as individuals.
HRB: Back to what you were talking about with the highs and the lows. The highs this team have experienced with you as the head coach have been hard-fought, close matches NYCFC weren’t favored to win: Dallas, Red Bulls. The highs earlier in the season were big scorelines at home in Yankee Stadium. Are you a head coach who embraces the challenges of these tough games?
NC: I don’t get intimidated by the tough games, or the pressure of having to win those games. I believe we can win every game, but I understand we can’t win every game the way we want to win it. We can’t win every game 5-nil at home at Yankee Stadium. There are going to be challenges.
This is not an excuse, and I will never make excuses, but I do think it’s easier to play seven home games on the run at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium with the atmosphere. Statistically, we have more of a chance of winning those games than away at Dallas and away at Red Bull. I think the aim is for us to be able to cope in either moment.
The long term aim is to be dominant away from home. I came from Manchester, and I watched them evolve into a team that can dominate the ball wherever they go. That has to be our aim.
I think we’re a little too pragmatic at times. We go away and we play one more defensive player, or we wouldn’t really let the reins off our players. Now I think we have to aim to go and play free-flowing attacking football wherever we go, whilst understanding that this league is set up not to have this gap between teams. You can’t be Manchester City and go and play with the confidence that you’re going to win. Here anybody can beat anybody. The league is set up like that. That’s why the rules are there. So then it’s about how well coached the team is, the mentality of the team, and the form of the team. That’s what’s going to build the confidence that you can go to a Dallas and dominate the ball, to go to Red Bull and consistently play football against that team no matter how strong people say their pressing is, how amazing people say their pressing is. Our football is amazing, so we can go and play against them.
That’s where we have to aim. We have to be consistent in our ball possession, in our offensive stats, and then we can get consistent wins and finish top of the East.
HRB: Last question, and it’s a little bit of gotcha journalism. On Backheeled.com, Justin Egan ranked the fashion sense of all of the head coaches in the playoffs, and you got last place.
NC: Did I? How nice.
I’m OK with that though, because the last thing I think about is what I’m going to wear. There are lots of more important things to think about when we go to Montréal away than if I’m going to look good.