The months-long wait for a New York City FC win is over.
NYCFC beat CF Montréal 1-0 thanks to a sensational Matías Pellegrini scissor-kick goal, the team’s first road win of 2023 and their first win of any kind since April 22nd vs. FC Dallas. Kickoff of the match was delayed 90 minutes due to severe weather in Montréal, the second straight NYCFC match in Canada to feature a delayed start, but the wait didn’t deter the visitors.
It wasn’t a dominant display but it was still one of NYCFC’s more confident road performances of the season, and one in which they could have scored a second or third goal and had a more comfortable path to victory.
The Pellegrini goal in the 33rd minute was a sight to behold, with Matí making the perfectly-timed acrobatic connection with a cross floated in by his fellow Argentine Braian Cufré. It’s a goal likely in the running for Goal of the Matchday across MLS and one that’s sure to feature in any best-of-2023 compilations NYCFC puts together, please do not hesitate to watch it, and re-watch it, and bask in it.
That goal also snapped a historic streak for Montréal, as the Quebecois club came into the meeting with NYCFC having not been beaten nor scored upon in six straight MLS home matches dating back to April 22nd (there’s that date again).
Perhaps the best scoring chance post-Pellegrini goal came right before halftime in a hectic sequence that started when Santiago Rodríguez played Talles Magno in on goal. Talles Magno’s shot was directly at Montréal keeper Jonathan Sirois and saved, then while chasing the rebound Sirois looked to possibly commit a penalty foul on Santi (which went uncalled, even after a VAR check, though Apple’s broadcast showed zero decent replays of the incident), with the bouncing ball eventually ending up at the feet of Mitja Ilenič, whose powerful shot towards goal was nicely saved by Sirois.
After halftime, NYCFC again had two great opportunities to extend their lead, but both chances, in the 55th and 68th minute respectively, were nullified by Santi being caught offside.
Nick Cushing started turning to his bench to see out the slump-busting win from the 71st minute onward, including handing Homegrown defender Nico Benalcazar his first-ever MLS appearance.
Montréal dialed up the pressure once NYCFC decided to turn to the subs bench and sit back and defend their lead, but the new-look NYCFC back line anchored by the Maxime Chanot, Tayvon Gray, and Justin Haak trio at center back held strong. NYCFC at times struggled to clear the ball from their own 18-yard-box and looked wobbly while parking their proverbial bus, but they still got over the line with a doubly-elusive clean sheet and road victory intact.
A 90’+4′ minute counterattack from NYCFC got Richy Ledezma clear in on goal with a chance to double the lead and ice the win, but the just-married midfielder, like Talles Magno before him, put his shot straight into the path of Sirois, who made yet another key save. Sirois put in a stellar performance in goal for Montréal, but that matters little when the end result was a hugely cathartic NYCFC win.
NYCFC: 10 shots, 7 on goal, 41.9% possession, 363 passes, 82.6% pass accuracy, 7 fouls
Montréal: 11 shots, 3 on goal, 58.1% possession, 485 passes, 86.8% pass accuracy, 12 fouls
The Argentine Connection
Matías Pellegrini and Braian Cufré have both been targets of some supporter criticism due to their high salaries and, thus far, limited production. The two Argentines, however, each put in match-winning performances against Montréal and should be enjoying boosts of confidence after decidedly mixed starts to their seasons.
Pellegrini needed a confidence boost the the most, as the former Inter Miami Designated Player had not scored since joining NYCFC late last summer, and only notched his first assist last weekend in Portland.
The wondergoal that broke this seemingly-endless NYCFC slump should be a weight off Matí’s back, but he brought more to the table than just the goal. Just minutes before scoring, Pellegrini split the Montréal defense with a perfect through-ball to Cufré, who failed to see an unmarked Talles Magno at the back post and let a scoring chance go to waste by forcing a pass into traffic that the hosts dealt with.
Pellegrini suffered the most fouls in the match and put in another high-effort, workmanlike shift that also included his world-class finish for his first NYCFC goal. Very early in the season, Pellegrini looked ascendent, like someone who was going to turn into a reliable two-way winger who would help NYCFC in the attack by pressing high, and who would do lots of the physical dirty work required of wide players in Cushing’s system.
That didn’t quite come to pass, as he fell out of the lineup and struggled with some injuries, but perhaps the two straight matches involved in NYCFC goals will serve as a springboard to a big summer.
Cufré hasn’t had the best start to life in MLS, shuffled in and out of the lineup while rotating left back/left wingback duties with Kevin O’Toole, but tonight was one of his best showings to date with NYCFC. He could have had two assists had Santi Rodríguez not been deemed offside after guiding a first-time shot past Sirois, and was a generally dangerous presence when he pushed forward to contribute to the team’s attack.
Both Pellegrini and Cufré will be looking to bottle the success they enjoyed north of the border in order to replicate it in the tough matches that lie ahead.
Attacking ruthlessness still missing
Simply put, this should not have been a nail-biting 0-1 away win for New York City, and scoring just the one goal should go down as the night’s biggest disappointment, if there is such a thing, given the team finally emerged from its 11-match winless streak.
Talles Magno had another quiet night up front for NYCFC, squandering multiple chances to score his first goal since, you guessed it, April 22nd. He too often drifted or passed backwards when in possession of the ball, and his two shots on target both were directed straight at the Montréal keeper Sirois.
Santi Rodríguez was the more effective of the two attacking NYCFC Designated Players, but he was also twice ruled offside during promising forays toward the Montréal goal. More importantly, he picked up a yellow card that will have him suspended for the midweek match against Charlotte FC, so more attacking support is needed if this is to turn into a winning streak.
That may come in the form of a return to health for Gabriel Pereira, who came off at the half in Portland but was entirely out of the squad for this match, but is said by Cushing to only have a minor injury. In Montréal, attacking support wasn’t found on the NYCFC bench, as both offensively-minded substitutes–Richy Ledezma and Gabe Segal–put in forgettable shifts, looking rusty and off the pace.
Santi’s absence for Charlotte’s trip to Citi Field could open the door for another Pellegrini start and for a fresh chance for Talles Magno to reverse the fortunes of his disappointing season, and NYCFC will need to see immediate improvement from its collection of young attackers if they’re going to build on this first win in what feels like forever.
Justin Haak’s defensive development
Maxime Chanot appeared to start the clock on the apprenticeship of “Justin Haak, central defender” during the last trip NYCFC made to Montréal during the 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, when Chanot was forced off with injury and Haak was turned into a stopgap center back so Cushing could stick with his effective, fluid late-season formation.
Chanot was seen coaching Haak up on the field and in the locker room, and it’s easy to assume the veteran Luxembourg international has continued to help Haak along while he’s again been forced into regular duty as a center back.
With now six straight starts as a central defender under his belt, Haak is looking like a fast learner, appearing to grow more and more comfortable playing in defense with each passing game. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that NYCFC are unbeaten in those same six games that have seen Haak deployed in defense?
The entire back line had strong showings in Canada, but Haak is the newest and greenest of the five in terms of playing as a defender, and his was an important presence late in the win over Montréal. Haak put out fires through timely clearances and consistently solid defensive positioning, and his development in this new role is looking like a bright spot emerging from the gloom of NYCFC’s now-finished winless streak.