It was an utterly forgettable trip to the Lone Star State for New York City FC, as they fell to the Houston Dynamo 1-0 in a match decided by a 55th minute, VAR-awarded penalty converted by Amine Bassi.
A Tayvon Gray tackle on Hector Herrera directly in front of goal was initially deemed fair, but referee Guido Gonzales Jr. was summoned to the VAR monitor and awarded a spot kick to the hosts following the review. Bassi’s ensuing penalty was well-placed and would be all the scoring needed against a toothless NYCFC.
Like many of the Dynamo’s fans, NYCFC’s attack failed to show up at Shell Energy Stadium. The forward players never looked aggressive or particularly engaged on the night, with NYCFC not attempting a shot in the match’s first half-hour. The team only registered one shot on target all night, unable to put the occasionally-wobbly Houston goalkeeper Steve Clark to the test. Every attacker deployed by Nick Cushing, be it starters or substitutes, failed to make an impact.
NYCFC’s struggles on the road continue, as they’ve now been shutout in two of their three away trips in 2023 and still have just scored one goal away from Yankee Stadium. They will quickly have another chance to improve their road form, as they head to the unforgiving plastic pitch at Gillette Stadium to meet the Eastern Conference-leading New England Revolution on Matchday 6.
NYCFC: 5 shots, 1 on goal, 54.9% possession, 515 passes, 87.2% accuracy, 15 fouls
Houston: 9 shots, 2 on goal, 45.1% possession, 433 passes, 85.5% accuracy, 15 fouls
Midfield malfunctions sans Sands
The big question heading into this match was how Nick Cushing would replace Maxime Chanot while he’s away on international duty. Answer: Cushing chose to remove James Sands from the defensive midfield role he’d thrived in since returning to NYCFC and use him at center back in place of Chanot.
Sands held his own in defense, but his absence from the midfield felt significant. Keaton Parks looked uncomfortable and out of sync while paired with Alfredo Morales, who entered the Starting XI in Sands’ usual midfield role. A missed connection between Parks and Santiago Rodríguez in their own 18-yard box set Houston up for the attacking move that led to Herrera drawing the match’s decisive penalty.
Nick Cushing has been vocal about viewing Sands as a No 6, and NYCFC’s best performances of 2023 have all featured Sands as a midfield starter. Yet Cushing eschewed the option of using a natural defender like Tony Alfaro to replace Chanot at the back, which did his midfield no favors. That Sands-less midfield ended up getting thoroughly outplayed, unable to control the game or get the ball into any dangerous positions for the likes of Talles Magno.
The choice of Sands-as-CB hurt the midfield, and it also speaks volumes about where Tony Alfaro stands at the moment. The natural central defender has still not seen a minute of action with NYCFC, and Cushing candidly admitted pregame that he doesn’t think Alfaro is ready to contribute for NYCFC just yet, and also that his team is still in the market for another central defender.
Designated Player attackers fail to launch
Against DC United last weekend, both Talles Magno and Santi Rodríguez scored their first goals of 2023 while looking their most dangerous and effective to date this season. The duo of attacking Designated Players produced polar opposite performances in Houston. Neither seemed to be operating at full bore, with both players too wasteful when in possession and unable to ever really threaten Houston’s defense. NYCFC is always going to struggle to score goals if both of these key creative players simultaneously have off nights. It must be said that they were not alone, as wingmen Matías Pellegrini and Gabriel Pereira also both were anonymous and ineffective against the Dynamo. It’s not a recipe for success to have NYCFC’s entire front four all suffer through poor performances in the same match.
One debut, one almost-debut
Richy Ledezma was only officially announced as a new NYCFC player yesterday, but he’d trained with the team all week and was deemed ready for a late-game cameo. He replaced Gabriel Pereira in the 68th minute and looked decent in his limited minutes, a rare NYCFC player to actually register a shot (which was blocked). It was interesting to see him put on corner kick duty in his debut, a sign of faith in his ability to whip dangerous balls into the box. Ledezma’s debut was not the most memorable, but he had to start somewhere, and nothing he did at Shell Energy Stadium should lessen the excitement around his addition to the squad.
Interestingly we also almost got to see newly-acquired goalkeeper Matt Freese make his NYCFC debut. Luis Barraza went down and looked to be in some significant pain in the 78th minute. Freese got warmed up but never was summoned to enter, as Barraza gutted out the remaining minutes and was at least healthy enough to earn a late yellow for making a desperation open-field tackle to prevent Houston from adding a second goal on the counter following a failed NYCFC set play.
Before the injury scare, Barraza’s distribution struggles continued. His 23rd-minute mishit of an attempted long pass fell right to Houston’s Brooklyn Raines, who had a glorious open look to give his team the lead, but put the shot wide. A sigh of relief for Barraza and NYCFC, but concerns have to remain about the current No 1 keeper’s passing. He’s completed just 30% of his long pass attempts this season, with his overall pass completion percentage hovering in the mid-70s. Not the kinds of numbers expected from the starting keeper of a team that likes to control possession and pass the ball around the back. While Matt Freese wasn’t summoned to replace Barraza mid-match in Houston, the injury concern might linger as the New England game approaches. Perhaps Freese’s time is soon to come?
Goals: Houston, Bassi (PK) 55’
Houston, Artur, yellow card foul 17’
NYCFC, Keaton Parks, yellow card foul 29’
NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez, yellow card for dissent 55’
Houston, Griffin Dorsey, yellow card foul, 90’
NYCFC, Tayvon Gray, yellow card foul, 90+3’
NYCFC, Luis Barraza, yellow card foul, 90+9’
Referee: Guido Gonzales Jr.
Assistant Referees: Brooke Mayo, Walter Heatherly
Fourth Official: Danielle Chesky
VAR Referee: José Carlos Rivero
Assistant VAR Referee: Gjovalin Bori