New York City FC turned in another lifeless performance away from home, losing 1-0 to Toronto FC at BMO Field. It was the first match-up between the two conference rivals since goalkeeper Sean Johnson switched sides and signed with Toronto as a free agent, though the former NYCFC captain hardly had any work to do en route to a fourth clean sheet with his new club.
NYCFC’s attack pulled another disappearing act when playing on the road, unable to build on the progress it displayed in the two home wins at Citi Field that preceded this dud of a performance. The team remains winless away from home in 2023, with just two goals scored in their five road matches.
New York City managed just one shot on target out of five attempts total, and generated a mere 0.34 expected goals (xG). It was an almost identical statistical match to the bleak road loss in Houston, which also saw NYCFC register one shot on target out of five attempts, though the xG number was actually worse in Texas (0.23) than it was in Canada.
The start of the match was delayed by a good 20-plus minutes despite the players being fully warmed up and seeming on the verge of kicking off. A fire alarm at BMO Field was reportedly the reason for the delay, and NYCFC did not seem to handle the unexpected complication well at all.
From the opening whistle, NYCFC was regularly misplacing easy passes, losing out to Toronto players on 50-50 balls, and seemed generally uncertain and unconvincing when in possession.
Toronto weren’t much better in the attack despite boasting the attacking firepower of their two Designated Players from Italy, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. It would take a link-up between two MLS veterans to provide the match’s one and only goal, which came almost immediately after the start of the second half.
Longtime NYCFC nemesis Richie Laryea ran right at Kevin O’Toole, advancing the ball all the way to the endline while also drawing Maxime Chanot out of position before delivering a perfect ball to the feet of an unmarked CJ Sapong, who tapped in the decisive goal. This was Sapong’s debut for Toronto and his third game against NYCFC already in 2023, as he just joined Toronto this week from Nashville SC following an inter-MLS trade.
The visitors never bounced back after being punished for not being ready to properly start the second half. That 46th minute Sapong goal was all TFC would need, with Toronto looking comfortable and more likely to find a second than to concede an equalizer for much of the second half.
Things really hit rock bottom for NYCFC in the 90th minute, when Maxime Chanot’s frustration with the fruitless search for an equalizer turned into a full-blown yelling match with Talles Magno, culminating with the young Brazilian flipping Chanot the bird.
The dust-up came in the heat of competition and was supposedly resolved in the locker room post-match, but it still stands out as an early low point that raises serious questions about the dynamics and chemistry in the NYCFC dressing room.
NYCFC: 5 shots, 1 on goal, 55.3% possession, 595 passes, 91.1% accuracy, 8 fouls
Toronto: 11 shots, 6 on goal, 44.7% possession, 487 passes, 86.0% accuracy, 11 fouls
Double your Designated Player disappointment
Neither Santiago Rodríguez nor Talles Magno registered a shot attempt in this match. The biggest impact Magno made on the proceedings came via his middle finger, while Rodríguez came nowhere close to replicating the success he found while playing in the free-roaming False 9 role last weekend against FC Dallas. Talles Magno is getting most of the post-match scrutiny for both his lackluster performance and on-field beef with Chanot, and deservedly so. The Brazilian did not seem up to the game, wholly unable to make anything happen when the ball came his way. Talles Magno also didn’t do much, if any, defensive work to help his left-sided partner Kevin O’Toole, who happened to be making his first start of the season at left back in place of Braian Cufre.
Rodríguez was given just his second start as the nominal striker in head coach Nick Cushing’s formation, but did not seem interested in or capable of doing many of the striker-ish things he did last Saturday at Citi Field. He spent most of his night drifting out wide to the left, or dropping deeper into the central midfield to collect the ball. As a result that meant he was no threat to Toronto’s central defenders or goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
The struggles of NYCFC’s two more advanced central midfielders, Richy Ledezma and Keaton Parks, likely did not help Santi or Talles Magno in their attacking efforts. Yet this match still felt like a big step backwards for the Santi Striker Experiment, and for Talles Magno’s seeming improvement while playing left wing. Given the complete lack of alternatives, Santi is likely to get more chances to make it work at the False 9, but he seems to have a long way to go to make the role his own. As for Talles Magno, progress would likely include not making obscene gestures toward his teammates again this season.
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Come back soon, Gabi Pereira
Gabriel Pereira was a surprise absentee in Toronto, announced as out with a lower body injury just hours before the match despite being pictured extensively in training as late as Thursday. The timing was inopportune, as Pereira had a strong case to make for Player of the Match in the win over Dallas, and had seemed to be rounding into great form after falling out of the NYCFC starting lineup for a few matches.
Cushing was unable to solve Pereira’s absence, as both players he tried over on the right wing failed to make anything out of their opportunities. Matías Pellegrini, who started as the right winger against New England Revolution and Atlanta United, reclaimed that starting role vs Toronto. To Pellegrini’s credit, he was the only NYCFC player to put a shot on target, but he continued to not add much when NYCFC were looking to attack. He too often dawdled on the ball when in possession, and seems far too conservative with his decision-making, quick to pass backwards rather than attempting to advance towards goal. Pellegrini was good in the air, winning all three of his aerial duals and pulling off a nifty flick-on header to create a mini-chance for Richy Ledezma in the 25th minute, but the Argentine was justifiably yanked in the 55th minute with NYCFC in need of a spark.
Pellegrini’s replacement, Andres Jasson, did not provide that spark, though he got into a number of more dangerous positions than Pellegrini while at right wing. Jasson provided the closest thing to a chance for an equalizer in the 73rd minute, getting on the end of a dangerous Kevin O’Toole cross but putting his powerful header way over the Toronto bar. It’s par for the course with Jasson so far in his MLS career: He has good attacking instincts and is often in the right place, but just seems to be missing that extra bit of quality needed to actually score goals at the MLS level. If Pereira is out for any extended time, it will be very tough to replicate what he brings to the table if Pellegrini and Jasson are the Next Men Up on the right.
Time for Chemistry Class?
The Chanot-Talles Magno tête-à-tête was tough to watch, but it was also not the only on-field disagreement among NYCFC players as they suffered through 90 ugly minutes North of the Border. Thiago Martins blew up at his 18-year-old right back Mitja Ilenic early in the match, and players seemed to not be on the same page at many other points, though with less obvious yelling involved. This level of internecine sparring is not promising coming from a team whose leadership is in something of a state of flux.
NYCFC lost some of its biggest veteran locker room presences this offseason, including their long-serving captain. NYCFC also have chosen to have no clearly defined captain, with Nick Cushing repeatedly deflecting questions about NYCFC’s captaincy by referring to the team’s “leadership council” of players, claiming they collectively fulfill the duties of a single captain. Some members of the soccer cognoscenti claim that a “captain” is a meaningless designation that has no impact on team performance (similar to recent claims made about the importance of managers).
The dynamics at play within NYCFC, though, seem to be actively making the case for the importance of having a clearly-defined captain. Chanot’s passion and will to win have always been a part of his game, and he has always been quick to stand up for his teammates and argue on the team’s behalf in tough moments in matches. He embodies the attributes one would expect from a captain, yet has not been given back the armband since being absent from the Houston match, despite captaining the side in NYCFC’s opening four matches of 2023.
James Sands has now become the wearer of the armband, while also still not becoming the fully-ordained captain of the team. His on-field style is the antithesis of Chanot’s, always seeming to keep a level head and rarely if ever showing any emotion. The Sands and Chanot leadership styles would seem at odds, but perhaps their stylistic differences don’t matter.
But this also seems like the wrong moment for NYCFC to have a hodgepodge, many-cooks-in-the-kitchen approach to leading the team. They’ll need a big response to wash away the stink of all that went wrong in Toronto, and it’s now harder to identify the player capable of stepping up to provide the kind of unifying leadership that seems necessary to solve the chemistry issues starkly on display in the team’s latest road loss.
Toronto, Sapong, 46’
NYCFC, Keaton Parks, yellow card, foul 54’
Toronto, Richie Laryea, yellow card, foul 65’
Toronto, Matt Hedges, yellow card, foul 72’
Toronto, Sean Johnson, yellow card, time wasting 80’
Referee: Armando Villareal
Assistant Referees: Andrew Bigelow, Meghan Mullen
Fourth Official: Ben Pilgrim
VAR: Alejandro Mariscal
Assistant VAR: Thomas Supple