The season of struggle on the road hit a new low point for New York City FC as they suffered a 1-0 loss in the year’s first Hudson River Derby with local rival New Jersey Red Bulls. A classy finish from an opportunistic Omir Fernandez in the 76th minute was all the scoring needed on another lost night for NYCFC’s attack. NYCFC put just one shot on target, stretching their current goal drought to 213 consecutive minutes across the three most recent MLS and Open Cup matches.
In total it’s now just four goals scored away from home for NYCFC out of eight road matches played in all competitions this season. Those two goals in last weekend’s loss in Charlotte feel like a prolific and aberrant outburst, as this was NYCFC’s fourth 1-0 road loss of 2023, and also the fourth time NYCFC have managed to put just one single solitary shot on target. Red Bull Arena continues to be an unfriendly place for NYCFC to visit as the away team, with their record in road Hudson River Derby matches now a sad 2 W-2 D-11 L across MLS and Open Cup play.
NYCFC dominated the possession battle, but did next to nothing with the ball. Their most promising scoring chance of the night likely came in the 30th minute, when a passing sequence started by Kevin O’Toole in his own defensive end built up to Gabriel Pereira curling a first-time strike from just outside the 18-yard-box off the outside of the far post. The only shot NYCFC would put on target all night came a mere nine minutes later, when Talles Magno rolled a weak effort right into the palms of Red Bull keeper Carlos Coronel after Gabriel Pereira found him with an incisive cross-field ball that temporarily broke the Red Bull press.
The Red Bull style on the night was one of selective pressing while ceding possession, appearing to collectively be waiting to pounce either on a counterattack or on a glaring NYCFC mistake. New Jersey came in having conceded the third-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference even despite their slide down the table during the controversy-marred final days of Gerhard Struber’s managerial tenure. They retained that defensive solidity in their first MLS action under new interim coach Troy Lesesne, largely untroubled and unthreatened by NYCFC’s possession dominance.
It must be said that this was not a match likely to be described as easy on the eyes by supporters of either side. Both teams registered dreadfully low expected goal numbers on the night, the sides each responsible for creating a wimpy 0.30 xG. At home in Harrison, New Jersey, the Red Bulls found the difference-making goal and were able to turn to their bench to see out the result. Nick Cushing conversely tried to ride his starting eleven for all it was worth, making just one change (Andres Jasson for Richy Ledezma in the 89th minute) despite his team’s congested recent schedule of matches, and its need to chase for an equalizer from the 76th minute on.
NYCFC: 6 shots, 1 on goal, 68.5% possession, 637 passes, 85.6% accuracy, 9 fouls
Red Bulls: 8 shots, 4 on goal, 31.5% possession, 295 passes, 70.2% accuracy, 14 fouls
Desperately seeking shots
Santiago Rodríguez has played his version of the No 9 role in each MLS match NYCFC has played starting with his brace-scoring performance in the 3-1 home win over FC Dallas. What worked against Dallas, though, has not translated in Santi’s three subsequent “striker” appearances. Against the Red Bulls the Uruguayan Designated Player was undeniably active and involved all over the pitch, with the notable exception being inside the opposing penalty area.
Santi, like Talles Magno, likes to drop into the midfield or out into space on the left in order to attempt to take on opponents with dribbles into more dangerous areas. Santi led all players with three chances created in the match, but he also took zero shots, on goal or otherwise. It’s hard to fault Santi’s effort or desire to make something happen with the ball at his feet, but in this match, his attributes did not align with what NYCFC needed out of its “striker.”
The position has been a huge sore spot in nearly all of the matches NYCFC have played since saying goodbye to Taty Castellanos, a player who still has not come close to being replaced on the NYCFC roster. The need for a direct option (like, say, Red Bulls sub Cory Burke) who will threaten opposing center backs and do dangerous things directly in front of goal has not been met all season long. None of Talles Magno, Gabe Segal, or Santi Rodríguez look like the answer to NYCFC’s problems at the tip of the attack, at least not as things currently stand.
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Intrigue at fullback
Nick Cushing’s biggest calls in his starting lineup came at left and right back, with the NYCFC manager preferring the more MLS-seasoned Kevin O’Toole and Tayvon Gray rather than 2023 newcomers Braian Cufré and Mitja Ilenič. Cufré interestingly has not appeared for NYCFC since being subbed out of the Charlotte loss in the 70th minute, now looking to be at least temporarily out of favor after starting 10 of 13 competitive matches the team has played this year. Gray and Ilenič have each gotten their fair share of minutes, but Gray earned the trust of his manager to handle right back in the team’s most high-profile match this season.
O’Toole had some bright moments in attack, combining with Talles Magno for a few promising forays forward up the left flank, but he also struggled with his passing accuracy on the night (just a 73% completion rate) and grew less effective getting forward as the match progressed. Gray was consistently ineffective with the ball at his feet in possession, providing almost no attacking threat as an overlapping fullback while not doing much to unlock or assist the attacking potential of Gabriel Pereira. Gray is usually a sturdy defender, but he and Gabriel Pereira both failed to deal with the 75th-minute pass whipped directly into their paths, the one that would deflect over to an unmarked Omir Fernandez, who perfectly placed his finish above a strayed-too-far-off-his-line Luis Barraza.
The decisions to start O’Toole and Gray did not come as huge surprises, but logic breaks down a bit when Mitja Ilenič remains on the bench for the entirety of the match. The 18-year-old Slovenian has not seemed out of place in his early MLS career, and with NYCFC chasing for a goal from the 76th minute on, it’s fair to wonder why a self-proclaimed attacking right back who recently picked up assists in two straight matches was left as an unused substitute. Ilenič is young and still adjusting to MLS, so a first derby match appearance would be a big test, but he’s been tested at plenty of other points this season. To not even insert him as a substitute in hopes of whipping in an effective cross late on while down a goal feels like a missed opportunity.
Who will stop the bleeding?
Watching NYCFC play on the road has turned into a frustrating, largely boring experience. There’s no clear attacking focal point, and the team’s reliance on its young trio of Talles Magno, Santiago Rodríguez, and Gabriel Pereira to produce goals and assists has not yielded consistent results outside of Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. Even on nights when the team dominates possession as it did against the Red Bulls, it too often feels purposeless, with attacking moves crumbling as soon as the final third approaches.
There don’t appear to be any promising in-house Plan B options for Nick Cushing to turn to when his A-list attackers aren’t firing, as was the case in this latest loss in Harrison. The recent departure of Thiago Andrade has further thinned out the bench squad to the point where the only sub Cushing used on the night was Andres Jasson. Jasson remained goalless for his MLS career which now spans 44 appearances and over 1,330 minutes played.
Gabe Segal and Matías Pellegrini were the only other attackers NYCFC carried on its substitutes bench, yet in a revelatory post-match answer when he was asked about only using one substitute, Cushing said “I thought we had all of our offensive players on the field.” Not a ringing endorsement from the manager on the attacking upside offered by his three most obvious potential goal-chasing substitutes.
Cushing was also quick to take responsibility for the loss post-match, and rightly so. Thus far this season, he’s been unable to find the right adjustments to make, be it mid-game or in training leading up to matches, unable to improve both his team’s terrible road form and its recurring inability to score goals. He’s been done few favors by his boss, NYCFC sporting director David Lee, who has thus far not appeared to bring in the right mix of attacking talent to offset the losses of players like Taty Castellanos, Maxi Moralez, Heber, or Thiago Andrade.
The MLS season remains young and there’s always the hope of new talent arriving this summer, but for now, NYCFC look like a team still searching for answers as it drops like a stone down the Eastern Conference standings.
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Red Bulls, Fernandez, 76′
NYCFC, Keaton Parks, yellow card, foul 37’
Red Bulls, Andrés Reyes, yellow card, foul 67′
Red Bulls, Sean Nealis, yellow card, foul 72′
Red Bulls, John Tolkin, yellow card, foul 81′
Red Bulls, Cristian Cásseres Jr., yellow card, foul 89′
Referee: Ted Unkel
Assistant Referees: Cory Richardson, Nick Uranga
Fourth Official: Tori Penso
VAR: Edvin Jurisevic
Assistant VAR: Eric Weisbrod
If there was a game that really showcased this roster’s strengths and exposed its weaknesses, last night was it.
Defensively, we’re solid enough. Build up play? Very good. Cut the Red Bull defense open multiple times last night. Lots of really nice one touch football.
But there’s no one on the roster who can finish consistently so all of that build up play is wasted. No one to occupy the defense, no one in the box to aim for, no one who can make the runs that free up the player on the ball. That’s why so many of our attacks stall at the edge of the penalty area.
Captain? Who is it? Does the team have any leaders who can marshal the troops? Someone to look to in times of trouble, who can be the calming force in the locker room, who can keep spirits and motivation high? Clearly not, if TM and Chanot are butting heads and flipping each other off.
It’s really easy to just blame Talles Magno for playing like a deer in headlights (he did) or to blame Cushing for not making impactful substitutions (he didn’t/couldn’t) but the reality is, we lost the Derby not because of what one player did or didn’t do but because of the deficiencies in the roster. Front office and the lack of incoming moves this past transfer window got horribly exposed, and we have to survive all the way to July 5th with this hamstrung lineup.
as much as how painful to watch how the team’s been playing, let me wait just one more game. we all knew and were aware of the problems—everything’s been re-iterated by the experts, fans and et al. repeating it ’til the prob is gone seems also not productive IMO—and right now the squad is not strong to win all the away game like “all of sudden”. considering one game to pick—i clearly see Cushing’s bidding “draw games” in Toronto, NJ and also the OC game in Cincy. unfortunately the team was not even capable to keep a draw and that’s another problem than not being able to win—should be the Orlando. wanting to and going to believe, Cushing really saved the best for Orlando so it could end up with one promising win on the home stretch. if all these glitches still lead another L in Orlando, it’s not going to be pretty. sure it sucks losing, more sucks hearing another “yourcoachnamehereout” chant…
Dull is the story of their season. Tons of possession, zero attacking threat. Saturday was a perfect example: 69% possession, 1 shot on target.