It took only 45 minutes of the 2023 season for New York City FC’s best-laid plans for the center-forward role to come into question. Talles Magno earned the start as the lone forward in Nashville after a preseason spent in that same role, but he and all of NYCFC’s attacking players struggled.
The first half in Nashville was an ugly one for NYCFC, and the big halftime adjustment head coach Nick Cushing chose to make was a swap of positions for striker Talles Magno and left winger Thiago. No attacking substitutions entered, with Cushing attempting to see if Magno and Thiago could find a new chemistry in new positions, rather than hand a debut to new forward Gabe Segal or roll the dice with Andres Jasson.
While NYCFC played better in the second half, they still came away with no goals and only registered a minuscule 0.4 expected goals (xG) over the full 90 minutes. Playing as a striker, Thiago did manage to create NYCFC’s best scoring opportunity of the match, but it went begging.
Now as the dust settles on the underwhelming opening-round loss, questions swirl around how NYCFC should move forward with its forward position. The poor showings from the NYCFC attack, and Talles Magno in particular, already has multiple MLS observers questioning Talles Magno’s ability to thrive in the no. 9 role.
The loss in Nashville wasn’t one of Talles Magno’s better performances, and NYCFC will struggle to find success in 2023 if he is unable to play at a higher level than he did in the opener. But is it already time to wholly abandon the idea of Magno playing as a striker?
Talles Magno did struggle when first asked to replace Taty Castellanos after Girona came calling for the 2021 Golden Boot winner back in July 2022. He didn’t seem comfortable and his creative production dried up. Cushing and the team also didn’t seem committed to playing him at the position, perhaps knowing a veteran like Héber was still waiting in the wings ready to dutifully attempt the work of a proper No. 9.
By the very end of the 2022 regular season, though, Talles Magno did show signs of clicking in the lone forward role. It was just a handful of starts, one which was cut short by injury, but his performances as center-forward at “home” against Orlando City and on Decision Day in Atlanta pre-injury were highly encouraging.
It’s also not as though he hasn’t played the position before 2022—he was used as a No. 9 with Brazil’s U17 team, and played there while in Vasco de Gama’s youth ranks, according to sporting director David Lee in a 2021 interview not long after Magno signed with NYCFC.
Speaking of signings, that would seem like the most logical and straightforward way to solve the striker conundrum NYCFC currently faces. It’s now been quite a long while since Castellanos left NYCFC, and fellow striker Héber was also recently traded away.
Yet a significant signing at striker has yet to materialize, with Gabe Segal’s recruitment from the reserve team of 1. FC Köln the only recent forward addition. Until a new signing at striker actually arrives, NYCFC lacks an obvious, natural alternative to Magno—unless a player like Segal or homegrown NYCFC II regular Jonathan Jiménez (or maybe John Denis?) is deemed ready by Cushing and David Lee and given a chance to prove they belong in MLS.
Cushing has a handful of options to address the center-forward spot over the short- and long-term. He could simply run back his original, unsuccessful setup from Nashville with Talles Magno in the middle and hope for a better performance; he could continue the second-half-in-Nashville experiment with Thiago as a No 9; he could tweak his original setup to encourage Talles Magno to embrace life as more of a “False 9”; or he could dip deeper into the player pool and try a new option at forward.
It’s an unsettled place for a position of great importance to be almost immediately into the new season. Lots of questions have been raised about NYCFC’s striker spot after just the one match. It seems unlikely that we’ve seen the last of Talles Magno at striker, but it’s unclear exactly what direction the position is headed given how quickly plans changed on opening day in Tennessee.