Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: New York City FC suffered an away loss to an Eastern Conference team due to a goal conceded on a set piece. It’s become an all too familiar trend, though this time NYCFC brought it over to US Open Cup play in their 1-0 defeat to FC Cincinnati at TQL Stadium.
The loss at Cincinnati also feels familiar due to NYCFC’s poor track record in the US Open Cup. NYCFC have been eliminated in their very first Open Cup match five of the seven times they’ve competed for America’s oldest soccer trophy. Bowing out of this competition early is nothing new, as one-and-done was the standard NYCFC set in a string of losses to local rivals Cosmos and Red Bulls from 2015-2018. NYCFC did made quarterfinal runs in 2019 and 2022, but through 11 MLS regular season matches, this year’s squad never looked likely to be an Open Cup contender.
That pessimism, at least on my part, was due to two huge factors working against NYCFC heading into their Round of 32 meeting with FC Cincinnati: Untenable fixture congestion and a severe lack of quality squad depth.
NYCFC played in Charlotte this past Saturday, play in New Jersey this coming Saturday, then play in Orlando next Wednesday. There are simply too many important league matches bunched right around this year’s first Open Cup match. It was impossible to expect NYCFC to field a clear first-choice starting lineup in Cincinnati, because Nick Cushing likely wants his best at their best to face the Red Bulls and their new interim head coach Troy Lesesne.
Perhaps Cushing could have played a heavily rotated B-squad in Charlotte in order to field stronger lineups in both Cincinnati and New Jersey. NYCFC, though, has always prioritized its MLS success over the Open Cup, so it comes as no surprise they would remain mostly focused on chasing positive road results in MLS, rather than tiring out too many legs for a hopeful Open Cup road win.
The lineup Cushing rolled with this year was heavily rotated, and also appeared set up both not to concede and not to score. Cushing started five defenders and left three of his best attacking players–Santiago Rodriguez, Gabriel Pereira, and Richy Ledezma–on the bench as substitutes. The players asked to support proverbial main man Talles Magno again proved that they are not up to the task of being difference-makers at MLS level. It may be too early to judge Gabe Segal, as he’s only gotten a handful of chances, and still is a recent addition to NYCFC as of this preseason. Yet it’s undeniable that he has not shown much at striker, rarely threatening in front of the opposing goal in his starts or sub appearances. Andres Jasson has gotten more chances than Segal and also continues to underwhelm, despite a tendency to show flashes of attacking danger and a knack for getting into the right areas. He’s gone over 1,300 minutes with NYCFC without scoring a goal for the first team.
The collective performance in Cincinnati was by no means NYCFC’s worst in the Open Cup, nor was this their weakest lineup fielded in the competition. It was just always going to take more than what NYCFC had to offer to beat this version of FC Cincy. Cincinnati is currently one of the hottest teams in MLS, continuing to impress in 2023 after coming on strong at the tail end of the 2022 season. Cincinnati also has the luxury of extra rest to come after the Open Cup, as unlike NYCFC, they are not playing an MLS match this weekend. While Cincinnati didn’t include Udinese-bound NYCFC tormenter Brenner in its match squad and kept Luciano Acosta on the bench, they still put out a strong side that was able to find just enough to advance in front of their home crowd.
NYCFC’s lineup as constituted never really threatened, and while they were largely solid defensively throughout the match, it was inevitably another dead-ball goal that doomed the team to defeat. The fact that those types of goals have gotten so expected should only intensify the scrutiny on the team’s lingering set play incompetence. Goals conceded on set pieces are happening way too easily and way too often for a team that hopes to compete for anything significant in MLS.
It was not all negative, as some of the NYCFC depth players given a chance represented themselves well. It was a good showing from both of the NYCFC debutants, goalkeeper Matt Freese and center back Tony Alfaro. Freese was called on to make some big saves and really had no chance to keep out the Brandon Vazquez header off a corner kick that won Cincinnati the match. Alfaro was pushed out wide left reprising Alexander Callens’s role in Cushing’s reprise of the late-2022 three-at-the-back formation, and didn’t seem to put a foot wrong on the night.
As much as this loss felt inevitable due to the schedule circumstances, disparities of depth and current form between the squads, and NYCFC’s miserable recent road record, it’s nice to know the club was still looking out for its fans. What better way to wash away the bitter taste of mediocrity than by looking at some new renderings of the soccer stadium at Willets Point that will hopefully open in 2027?