New York City FC ended their season with a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire on an otherwise damaging Decision Day that saw the team eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoff field.
Both teams had a chance to still qualify with wins at Citi Field, but NYCFC needed a lot of help elsewhere and got none of it. Charlotte FC won, and the Red Bulls won, and now they’ll face one another in a single-elimination Wild Card match
Thus ends a failure of a 2023 campaign for a New York City side that finished 22nd in the Supporters Shield table, 11th in the Eastern Conference with 41 points. Their nine wins were fourth-lowest in MLS, they scored the third-fewest goals in MLS, and realistically had no business being in contention for a playoff berth, never mind this year’s MLS Cup.
The match at Citi Field was chance-filled for both teams yet only produced one goal, a beautiful left-footed strike from Julián Fernández in the 64th minute. Matt Freese fully earned the clean sheet against the Fire, making two critical saves to deny big Chicago chances in the first half while making four total in the match. The unbeatable keeper and moment of individual brilliance from the promising young winger made the difference in what was otherwise a relatively even contest fitting for two teams fighting for their seasons.
NYCFC: 14 shots, 4 shots on target, 50.2% possession, 435 passes, 84.6% pass accuracy, 13 fouls
Chicago: 15 shots, 4 shot on target, 49.8% possession, 416 passes, 80.3% pass accuracy, 9 fouls
Fernández offers hope
The day of playoff elimination is a particularly good time to look ahead to next season, and one big reason to be excited about NYCFC in 2024 is Julián Fernández.
Yes the goal was his most obvious highlight, but the 19-year-old Argentine also could have had an assist in the 25th minute when he whipped a dangerous ball across the face of goal that Santiago Rodríguez failed to connect with on what should have been the culmination of one of NYCFC’s best team goals of 2023.
The interplay and attacking fluidity on display between Santi, Mounsef Bakrar, Talles Magno, and Fernández in that particular 25th-minute sequence is a great taste of what’s possible for the 2024 version of NYCFC. All four players looked good and NYCFC as a whole looked more dangerous in the limited time that group spent on the pitch together late this season.
What lies ahead for NYCFC could be more promising than this slog of a 2023 season if Fernández continues to develop and grabs hold of that starting spot on the right side of the New York City attack, and if the understanding and chemistry continues to develop between the team’s young attacking foursome.
Matt Freese didn’t get a consistent run of MLS starts until the very end of August and only made 10 total league starts this season, with Nick Cushing and his coaching staff giving Luis Barraza a long look as the starter despite never actually naming him the team’s starter.
In retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight, that might have been the wrong move, because Freese continued his generally excellent run of form to keep a Decision Day clean sheet. Statistically, Freese has been excellent in his 900 league minutes in 2023: He’s in the 97th percentile for save percentage and 89th percentile in goals against compared to his positional peers over the last 365 days, according to FBref.com. That same measure of Barraza’s 2,160 league minutes had him ranking in the 22nd percentile for save percentage and the 37th percentile for goals against.
NYCFC have to make contract option decisions on both Freese and Barraza as the MLS offseason begins, with both players otherwise eligible to become MLS Free Agents. With Freese closing his season this strongly, clarity might have finally arrived for the NYCFC goalkeeper position.
Long NYCFC winter awaits
The MLS offseason is almost absurdly long for teams that don’t make it to the postseason. NYCFC won’t play a meaningful match again until some time in February. You can read more here about the important offseason dates and decisions that New York City will face this offseason.
Will any of the team’s three loan players—Andrés Perea, Braian Cufré, and the currently-injured Richy Ledezma—be sought out for a return in 2024? The goalkeepers have contract options to be decided, as does veteran midfielder Alfredo Morales, and there may be other members of the squad also with contract options NYCFC will have to pick up or decline.
The roster that finished outside the large MLS playoff field still needs reinforcing, but how active will the NYCFC front office be given the team has three Designated Players under contract and just imported a handful of new talent in the summer window? Will there be any other changes as a result of arguably the worst season in club history?
There are now months and months ahead for all that to be figured out.
- NYCFC, Julián Fernández, 64′
- NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez, yellow card, foul 78′
- NYCFC, Kevin O’Toole, yellow card, foul 84′
- NYCFC, Andrés Perea, yellow card, foul 90+4′
- Referee: Allen Chapman
- Assistant referees: Cameron Blanchard, Michael Barwegen
- Fourth official: Alex Chilowicz
- VAR: Kevin Stott
- Assistant VAR: Claudiu Badea