The 2023 soccer season is fast approaching as teams from every level prepare for a crowded calendar of competition. While MLS teams including New York City FC are in preseason, the lower divisions are also keeping busy.
Enter NYCFC II, the MLS NEXT Pro side heading into its second season in the third division of professional soccer. The team played their first non-league game of the 2023 season on Saturday afternoon at Belson Stadium on the campus of St. John’s University in Queens. The team drew 2-2 against defending NPSL national champions FC Motown in front of a crowd of 62 people.
Fans might also be able to count this game as a mini-Hudson River Derby considering the amount of New York Red Bull DNA on the field for Motown.
NYCFC II’s goals came from 2023 MLS SuperDraft pick MD Myers and Julián Gómez. The latter spoke following the match, and said his group was looking to continue the growth from its debut 2022 season.
“We know we have the potential to go into the playoffs and potentially win a championship,” Gómez said, noting his team didn’t advance far enough in the MLS NEXT Pro playoffs last year. “But we’re just taking it one day at a time. Looking to see what we can improve on.”
Center midfielder Jack Beer knew the squad wasn’t totally thrilled with the final result.
“Obviously we all like to win, we all like to compete. So the scoreline is not going to sit well with any of them,” Beer said. “But I think we’ll take a lot of positives from the performance and keep moving forward. Keep getting after it on the pitch training.”
It was a wake-up call from the offseason, but not totally unexpected. NYCFC II entered the friendly without a full-strength roster. Many important pieces of last year’s core, including striker John Dennis, were training on the west coast with the Senior Team. Other players who might make the jump to the Senior Team in the coming seasons, such as former St. Francis Brooklyn striker El Mahdi Youssoufi, weren’t rostered on Saturday (Update: HRB learned that Youssoufi is no longer with NYCFC II.)
Interestingly, NYCFC put out an official graphic listing a starting eleven and subs ahead of the game. By the next day, it was deleted. The names of the graphic were as follows:
Starting XI: Gianfranco*, Drew, Rio, Flores, Stevo ©, Piero, Beer, Morcky, Julian, MD*, Ronny
Subs: Harrison, Mousa, Cesco, Duque, Mateo, Massi, Kayvon, Oli, Travis
Stars indicated trialists on the graphic. The full name of every player could not be confirmed, meaning they will be listed exactly as they were on the graphic.
As the NYCFC II team didn’t wear kits with names during the match, sorting out individual performances was tricky. Still, Gómez in the midfield was one of the shining points of the first half. The former Monmouth University player and returning NYCFC II star made easy work of the defensive side of Motown’s roster. The cut-back into the middle from the left side of the box got past two defenders with one inadvertently taking him down for the successful penalty kick.
Perhaps that knowledge of getting past Motown came, in part, from his previous experience with them. Back in 2021, Gómez spent the summer with Motown’s USL League Two team – a joint outfit between the NPSL side and the STA soccer academy.
“I had to just step up, take responsibility and just put a goal away,” Gómez laughed. “But I miss playing with them so there’s nothing really against them. I (just) had to do what I had to do and had to score for my team now.”
Meanwhile the other goal scorer, MD Myers, honestly struggled against the larger side. The former Ocean City Nor’easter was picked 66th overall in this year’s draft but the forward never seemed to fully click against the more experienced outfit. His tying goal in the 29th-minute game after a cross into the box was muffled by the Motown defense. He jumped on the bouncing ball and put it past former Greenville Triumph keeper David Greczek to make it 1-1.
However, what can be said is that the defensive unit struggled against the more experienced Motown players. Former New Jersey Red Bulls II (it hurts me to write that) player Joe Fala dominated as striker for Motown. His 6′ 7″ frame essentially allowed the 25-year-old to bully players such as Academy defender Drew Baiera.
For his part, Fala was able to take advantage of this early on. He put Motown ahead in the 23rd minute after slipping past the backline to get a through ball. His run into the middle of the box ended with a low shot into the left side of the net, past a diving keeper.
That ultra-physical style was a major aspect of the game as well. Beer noted afterward that he thinks he was fouled six times during his 45-minute stretch. One Motown player, former Hartford Athletic midfielder Nii Armah Ashitey, was essentially shown a red card in the first 25 minutes. After seeing yellow in the 11th minute for a rough tackle, the Haitian international committed two more including what amounted to elbowing an NYCFC II player. The referee told him to leave the field without showing a card, but Ashitey removed his jersey and left the playing area for the rest of the game.
Despite all that, Beer was actually happy the game got to that sort of level.
“I was telling some of our coaches on the sideline that I would have expected this during game two or three of preseason to get after it, to get chippy (and) intense,” he explained. “But honestly it’s great for me and great for the boys to set the tone. Set the pace right and get the intensity right. Just getting it, (getting) the tackles. It’s gonna happen during the season so it’s a good test for us.”
The team bringing that physicality was no stranger to plenty of the NYCFC II roster. FC Motown, based out of Morristown, New Jersey, came into the match with the figurative eyes of the amateur soccer world on them. The team that won the NPSL championship last year battled through multiple late comebacks and the death of teammate Sainclair Tueno early in the season.
Head coach Gideon Baah, a former RBNJ player whose name might ring an unfortunate bell in the heads of New York City fans, told his team that this game was going to set the pace for the group.
“It is my dream, my wish, that we win it again. Because if we don’t win it again I’m going to start to think that it was a fluke last year. So many games (last year) were this close… but I know it wasn’t that because we put in the energy and the effort,” Baah said. “If we don’t win the championship this year I’m going to start to think ‘oh maybe we got lucky’ or maybe we were running off the back of Sainclair.”
Motown not only enter 2023 as defending national champions, but also have a major game coming up next month. The team will play in the First Round of the 2023 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup tournament against local USL League Two side Manhattan SC. That game will be played on Wednesday, March 22, at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx.
Baah noted in that same pregame speech that whatever he saw on the field against NYCFC II, he expected to see more of the same in one month’s time. Knowing how the team doesn’t practice full-time, this baseline performance to get the rust out might just be the same type of play his guys can put out in the national tournament.
The amateur side showed rust and fitness struggles against the younger academy kids midway through the first half. Interestingly, while NYCFC II swapped out their entire roster for the second half, their opponents opted to stay in formation. The slow trickle of new subs, not limited by the five-player limit, allowed Motown to get back into the game. The fresh legs played against the depth of energy brought by New York City, forcing turnovers and earning plenty of corner kicks in the final 45 minutes.
In the end, Motown found an equalizer in the 90th minute when former Pittsburgh Riverhound Kene Eze found the back of the net. His run down the right side allowed him to shoot into the opposite netting, making it 2-2.
A team like this one is what NYCFC II is hoping its younger players can learn something against. With a handful of reserve and academy players unavailable, the game-day roster featuring a plethora of experience levels is something Gómez enjoyed.
“It’s really good because (that’s one of ) New York City’s philosophies. They wanna keep pushing up the academy kids and involving them with the second team and the first team. So it’s always good for the club for the younger guys to get exposure.”
That exposure might lead to an NYCFC II team debut when the season officially starts later this year. The details for the season, including a full schedule, have yet to be announced.