Maxime Chanot’s sudden departure from New York City FC was likely still fresh in the minds of many heading into the team’s first match back at Yankee Stadium since June 17, yet it was the club’s new-look defense that delivered a performance to build on in a comfortable 2-0 win over CF Montréal.
Chanot spent much of the team’s disappointing 2023 season shepherding the NYCFC defense, but that task now looks to fall squarely on the shoulders of Thiago Martins, and he appeared up to said task in what was NYCFC’s first MLS home win since April 22 and their first win at Yankee Stadium since they beat DC United 3-2 back on March 18.
The Brazilian Designated Player improved significantly on his shaky performance on the road against FC Cincinnati over the weekend, and has also now worn the captain’s armband in all three MLS matches since play resumed post-Leagues Cup. The center back partnership between Martins and the recently-arrived Birk Risa looks to be the new defensive foundation on which NYCFC hopes to build.
Risa put in his best performance to date in NYCFC colors (green tonight, it turns out) against the visitors from Quebec. His 10 duels won were the most in the match, and the Norwegian’s skill as a passer was perfectly on display in his long-range assist to Mounsef Bakrar. A summer defender signing assisting a summer striker signing, exactly how sporting director David Lee drew it up.
On the note of defenders picking up assists, Braian Cufré earned one from left back, finding Andres Jasson in acres of space on the right to help complete a neat and efficient passage of progressive play from NYCFC that started all the way back almost on their own end line. Jasson’s creativity and finishing touch deserve the accolades, but the comfort of NYCFC’s players in the back was not exclusive to the center backs.
Cufré and right back Tayvon Gray both had solid nights, with Cufré given more freedom of the two to get forward and involved in the NYCFC attack.
All four defenders helped make things relatively easy for the night’s goalkeeper, Matt Freese, who subbed in for Luis Barraza and earned his second clean sheet in his last three appearances while making three saves. Freese looked strong, making one nice diving save and seeming to organize his defense well during Montréal attacking moments and set plays.
That it was a back four and that Freese was between the sticks are both significant developments, and might be signs of what’s to come in these final seven MLS games.
Head coach Nick Cushing has, all season long, had his team shift between a three- and four-man back line, and he’s also never named a true No 1, starting goalkeeper.
If ever there was a time to put an end to the fluctuations in formation and in net, it’s now, as the team is desperate to catch lightning in a bottle and string together wins during a stretch of six home games out of eight.
The back four of Thiago Martins, Risa, Gray, and Cufré showed lots of promise against Montréal, and Freese has looked solid in each of the looks he’s gotten as starting ‘keeper.
The phrase “run it back” looks to apply here, as this back line and goalkeeper combination should be given every chance to build on this promising step to see if they can quickly turn into a unit that’s hard to penetrate and that’s capable of running off an unexpected, playoff-salvaging winning streak.
Cushing faced a similar inflection point late in the 2022 season, and settled on a reworked formation and lineup, going to a fluid three-at-the-back system that thrust little-used Kevin O’Toole into an unlikely role as starter. The decision to stick with that formation and lineup managed to kickstart a great run of form for NYCFC—why not try to pull of the same trick twice?
It’s important to not overreact to one positive result, especially against a Montréal side that struggles to score and especially struggles to score on the road. It’s also only the third game Thiago Martins and Birk Risa have ever played side-by-side, so growing pains would seem likely to continue to pop up for a while.
This week’s Chanot departure, though, was another example of NYCFC turning the page on its past, and against Montréal, the present and future of the defense might have come into clearer focus.