Life on the road remained unpleasant for New York City FC as they suffered a second straight away loss, falling 3-2 to Charlotte FC. Defensive errors on set pieces once again doomed NYCFC, as Charlotte scored twice on dead-ball deliveries, including a 74th minute free kick that led to the match-deciding Richy Ledezma own goal.
This was a match NYCFC lost despite twice finding an equalizer. Charlotte have now won all three of their meetings with NYCFC, with former NYCFC assistant and current Charlotte coach Christian Lattanzio dominating his ex-employers in the early head-to-head.
That first NYCFC equalizer of the night became a necessity when Charlotte jumped out to a lead only eight minutes in, with Enzo Copetti splitting two NYCFC defenders and emphatically finishing a low cross sent in by McKinze Gaines.
Gabriel Pereira found the first leveler for NYCFC in the 37th minute, the result of a good run onto a well-weighted pass from Richy Ledezma, plus a cool finish by Pereira past Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina.
The positive feelings around Pereira’s goal proved to be short-lived, as Charlotte reclaimed the lead almost immediately after the restart. Enzo Copetti got his brace off a corner kick, as he was allowed to run unimpeded through the 18-yard box to attack the delivery, then beat two NYCFC defenders to the ball in the air.
NYCFC started the second half much more brightly than it did the first and got a deserved second equalizing goal in the 57th minute, this time from the penalty spot. Braian Cufré made a rare foray forward into the box and got wiped out by Charlotte defender Adilson Malanda, a clear foul given instantly by referee Chris Penso. Santiago Rodríguez stepped up and powered the spot kick home, and it looked as though NYCFC might be in position to finally steal a first road win this season.
That was not to be, as NYCFC’s attack stagnated in the period right after the Santi PK. Charlotte struck the final blow through yet another NYCFC set piece failure, as Richy Ledezma’s attempt at clearing a free kick turned in to him scoring past his own keeper.
There were perhaps a few more positives to be found in this loss than the dreary, self-destructive one NYCFC suffered last weekend in Toronto. Yet it’s another in a worrying string of losses outside New York City. It’s also a second consecutive defeat to a team that did not qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs a season ago, and one that did not enter the match in one of the nine Eastern Conference playoff spots.
The road ahead does not get easier, as it’s right back into action for NYCFC on Wednesday night away to FC Cincinnati in the US Open Cup’s Round of 32–and that’s just an appetizer to the weekend’s Main Event, the first Hudson River Derby of 2023 in Harrison, New Jersey. The matches now start coming in rapid succession, and none of them take place in New York until May 27th, so NYCFC will need to find a way to start getting some positive road results if they want to keep the season on track.
NYCFC: 10 shots, 6 on goal, 58.2% possession, 502 passes, 85.9% accuracy, 14 fouls
Charlotte: 11 shots, 3 on goal, 41.8% possession, 357 passes, 81.5% accuracy, 9 fouls
Reworked lineup didn’t work
Talles Magno and Maxime Chanot were both dropped to the bench in Charlotte after they had a prolonged altercation at the end of NYCFC’s loss in Toronto. It felt like an obvious disciplinary decision in response to the ugly scenes in the late stages at BMO Field, though Cushing also has squad rotation to point to given the pile-up of matches in the weeks ahead. The fullbacks were also switched from a week ago, with Tayvon Gray in at right back and Braian Cufré back at left back. James Sands was plucked from his midfield perch and asked to deputize again as a central defender, with Alfredo Morales in as a defensive midfielder in place of Sands. Matias Pellegrini was out of the squad entirely through injury, and with Talles Magno benched and Santi Rodriguez continuing to play the False 9, that opened the door for Andres Jasson to start at left wing.
In the end, none of NYCFC’s numerous lineup changes had a positive impact on the result. NYCFC’s midfield always looks worse when James Sands is not in it, and the strength of the center back pairing between Maxime Chanot and Thiago Martins had been one of the more consistent bright spots of the season to date. Cufré has become the established starter at left back, but he had a rollercoaster performance upon his starting lineup return in Charlotte. He lost the run of McKinze Gaines on the opening goal, drew the penalty that got NYCFC level in the second half, then conceded the sloppy foul that set up the free kick that won Charlotte the match. Jasson was invisible for the majority of his 45 minutes on the pitch, then was summarily replaced by Talles Magno at halftime with NYCFC chasing the game. Morales was the brightest of the bunch of new starters from a week ago, but his central midfield partnership with Parks didn’t look all that comfortable. Gray unfortunately got injured and needed to be replaced by Mitja Ilenic after just 15 minutes of action.
A need for both discipline and rotation no doubt forced many of these moves, but even without those external factors, Nick Cushing’s NYCFC have rarely deployed the same starting lineup in consecutive matches this season. There’s been a tendency to tinker in the early going, and what that tinkering has revealed has been a glaring lack of roster depth. While few MLS teams boast benches full of starting-caliber players, NYCFC have really struggled to get much out of their supporting cast despite giving plenty players chances. It’s easy to second guess and wonder if the Charlotte match might have played out differently if Maxime Chanot were not a spectator for the entire match, or if Talles Magno had been out there for a full 90 minutes.
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One NYCFC player who was out there for a full 90 minutes: Gabriel Pereira, and it’s a good thing he was. He made a seemingly miraculous recovery from whatever unspecified injury kept him from making the trip to Toronto and put in another Man of the Match-caliber performance for NYCFC in the Queen City. Pereira has been seriously rejuvenated since returning to the starting lineup for the home win over Nashville SC, notching a goal in Charlotte after picking up an assist (and almost-goal) in his last start vs. FC Dallas. His three completed dribbles were most in the match, he won five of his seven ground duels, and his goal had the look of one scored by a clinical finisher. The apps rated him highly, as Fotmob gave him a match rating of 7.9 (highest of any NYCFC player), while Sofascore had him at 7.3.
Given the inconsistent form shown this season by both Santi Rodriguez and Talles Magno, it feels like Gabriel Pereira might now be NYCFC’s most consistently dangerous attacking player. Depending on who you ask, he might now simply be NYCFC’s best attacker, period. Since the summer of 2022 he’s been lighting up MLS, and may now be the key man who NYCFC need to keep scoring and assisting goals, especially if the team is to improve its results away from home. The best attacking performance of NYCFC’s season came with all three of Santi, Talles Magno, and Gabi playing at their peak—overall in 2023, though, only Gabi has been able hit that peak with regularity.
Set pieces: Still no bueno
It’s become a bit of a broken record this season, but NYCFC have really struggled to defend set plays. Free kicks, corner kicks, they don’t discriminate: NYCFC can’t avoid conceding goals from either one. Tonight it was one of each, with Enzo Copetti knifing through the NYCFC defensive setup to score off a corner kick in the first half, and a miscue defending a dangerous Karol Świderski free kick delivery giving Charlotte their third, winning goal. NYCFC didn’t do itself any favors by fouling Charlotte players 14 times, which seems a surefire way to put yourselves at risk if you’re a team that struggles defending set pieces. While the Ledezma own goal was an unfortunate side effect of attempting a clearance via no-look glancing header, it wouldn’t have happened if not for the unnecessary and sloppy foul committed by Braian Cufre directly preceding it. Cufre had defensive cover, but still chose to lunge in on Karol Świderski, a risk that did not pay off.
What is the solution to this persistent set piece problem? The manager and players are all acutely aware and all say they work on fixing it whenever the set piece subject is raised. Cushing is quick to praise his assistant, goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian, for being a master of set play design and coaching. NYCFC are not that far removed from being one of the league’s better teams on corner kicks. It’s been pointed out that NYCFC now sometimes set up with an ultra-high defensive line on free kicks, for which they’ve been burned. Cushing has also pointed to the roster’s heavy turnover as a factor when it comes to miscommunications and missed assignments on early-season set plays. Nothing so far has seemed to improve the team’s glaring weakness on set plays in 2023, and the longer the problem persists, the harder it becomes to believe it’s not the new reality for this group of players.
Charlotte, Copetti, 8′
NYCFC, Pereira, 37′
Charlotte, Copetti, 39′
NYCFC, Rodriguez (PK), 57′
Charlotte, Ledezma own goal, 74′
Charlotte, Derrick Jones, yellow card, foul 2’
NYCFC, Richy Ledezma, yellow card, other 14′
Charlotte, Justin Meram, yellow card, other 14′
NYCFC, Alfredo Morales, yellow card, dissent 63′
Charlotte, Enzo Copetti, yellow card, dissent 66′
Referee: Chris Penso
Assistant Referees: Matthew Nelson, Kevin Lock
Fourth Official: Sergii Demianchuk
VAR: Daniel Radford
Assistant VAR: Thomas Supple