When the news broke Monday that Toronto FC
fired parted ways with head coach Bob Bradley, some wondered if New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing could be next.
After all, Bradley’s underperforming Toronto sit in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, just behind NYCFC in 13th place. In fact, four out of the five teams at the bottom of the table
mutually decided to end the contracts with canned their head coaches: NYCFC is the only one of the bunch to stick with their gaffer. That’s not likely to change any time this season. In what must come as a disappointment for the #CushingOut crowd, his job at New York City is safe.
To be clear, this assessment isn’t based on a leak or insider information. There’s no Deep Throat sending us screengrabs. The NYCFC front office runs a tight ship, and you stand a better chance of learning what Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko promised Yevgeny Prigozhin to get him to stop his march on Moscow than knowing what Brad Sims, David Lee, and Cushing discuss in the conference room on the 30th floor of NYCFC’s midtown headquarters.
But the reasons for Bradley’s departure from Toronto yesterday – and Phil Neville’s departure from Inter Miami on June 1, and Ezra Hendrickson’s departure from the Chicago Fire on May 8, and Gerhard Struber’s departure from the New Jersey Red Bulls on May 8 – are crystal clear, to use a phrase Struber made famous in the Bronx.
More to the point, Cushing’s circumstances at New York City are crystal-clearly different. While those four other head coaches were at the helm of ships that ran aground despite splashing out on big signings and filling holes in the lineup, Cushing is navigating the shallows with a squad that has been incomplete since last summer, when Taty Castellanos left for Girona FC, and that now features a rookie striker in Gabriel Segal who scored exactly zero goals in his professional career before suiting up for NYCFC this year.
To put it more succinctly: Bradley, Hendrickson, Neville, and Struber were held accountable for projects that didn’t work, but Cushing is still piecing together a project that is incomplete. Fairly or not, you can view Toronto, Chicago, Miami, and New Jersey as products that failed. NYCFC is a process that is still underway.
$25 million mutiny
Toronto, Chicago, and Miami have three of the largest payrolls in MLS. According to figures compiled by The Athletic after the MLS Players Association made their bi-annual data drop in May, Toronto leads the league with an estimated guaranteed salary package of almost $26 million.
In fact, Toronto made some of the biggest signings both this year and last, going to great lengths to shape a squad that has failed to perform. This team is stacked.
The deals to bring in Italian stars Federico Bernardeschi from Juventus and Lorenzo Insigne from Napoli in 2022 continue to grab the headlines in no small part because of their salaries: Bernardeschi has the second-highest compensation package in MLS, Insigne the fourth-highest. But the club also signed important players such as Canada international Mark-Anthony Kaye from the Colorado Rapids in exchange for $1.025 million in General Allocation Money, an international roster spot, and a first-round pick in the 2023 SuperDraft pick, and brought back defender Richie Laryea on loan from Nottingham Forest after selling him to the English club in 2022. This year, the club that wooed Sean Johnson away from New York City with promises of hanging out with Drake, also signed center-back Mat Hedges from FC Dallas, Norway international center-back Sigurd Rosted, and defender Raoul Petretta from FC Basel.
This squad was designed to hit the ground running; instead, they have spent the season sputtering at the bottom of the table. Bernardeschi and Insigne were supposed to elevate the level of play in MLS and prove conclusively that this is the seventh-best (or even sixth-best?) league in the world, but now are better known for bringing operatic drama to the locker room by talking smack about each other, orchestrating the ouster of the now-departed Bradley, and helping create “the worst environment of my career” according to an unnamed Toronto player quoted by The Athletic.
Is it fair to hold Bradley responsible for the on-field dysfunction of this heavily recruited, highly-paid team? Probably not, but that’s the nature of soccerball. There’s no transfer window for coaches: It’s easier to vanquish one recognizable name than to overhaul a squad.
In biblical times, a priest would symbolically place the sins of a community on a goat and send it out into the wild — that’s where we get the word scapegoat. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Money can’t buy happiness
The stories are similar in Chicago and Miami. Chicago’s Xherdan Shaqiri’s guaranteed compensation of $8.15 million makes him the highest-paid player in the league. His salary accounts for 41.5% of the entire Chicago payroll, which is the sixth-highest in MLS. Shaqiri is performing better this year than either Bernardeschi, whose three goals in 19 games makes him a lower-tier forward by league standards, or Insigne, whose injuries sidelined him for a significant part of the season. But his signing was always a bit of a head-scratcher. Yes, the former Liverpool and Bayern Munich star remains an important part of the Swiss national football team, but it seemed odd that Chicago would make a record signing for a midfielder who made 11 appearances for Lyon in 2021-2022, and will turn 32 in October.
Even more perplexing? The playmate who was brought in to give Shaiqiri’s squad a boost. When Chicago signed forward Kacper Przybyłko from Philadelphia Union for $1.15 million in GAM they signed this league’s Timo Werner, a striker who can’t shoot straight and yet who manages to get into the Starting XI game after game, year after year.
Przybyłko found the back of the net just five times in 25 appearances in 2022, and he’s not exactly shredding apart the opposition this year. Przybyłko, who will make $1.2 million in 2023, has only three goals in 11 starts. Not to put too fine a point on it, he is a thoroughly mediocre player according to the Opta stats on FBRef. He’s in the 53rd percentile for expected goal involvements, the 34th percentile for shots, and the 37th percentile for touches in the penalty area. What more is there to say other than: Well done, Philadelphia Union front office.
The story is similar at Inter Miami – big singings, big payroll, poor results – although the intrigue of Lionel Messi joining the team in July surely had something to do with Neville’s departure earlier this month. Surely it’s not a coincidence that Neville left just six days before Messi’s arrival was made public.
By cleaning house did the club make it clear that the organization was going to rebuild itself around Messi? Or maybe it was more direct: Neville has the well-earned reputation of being s deeply unlikeable person who nevertheless continues to fail upward — he’s now on the coaching staff of the Canada men’s national team, which itself is a hothouse of mismanagement, and announced this week that the team might be forced to skip games while the organization files for bankruptcy protection.
But to bring the focus back to Neville’s time at Inter Miami, he guided the team into two spectacular swan-dives this season. First, there was a six-game losing streak in March and April when Miami was held scoreless five times. Then there was a second losing streak that started in mid-May and continues to this day — it’s seven games and counting.
This with a team that features superstars Josef Martínez and Leonardo Campana in the attack, Mexico international Rodolfo Pizarro in the midfield, Canada international Kamal Miller and US international DeAndre Yedlin in defense, and the up-and-coming Drake Callender in goal. Quality players like these don’t guarantee a title, or even a deep run in the playoffs, but surely there’s enough experience and skill in this lineup to find a way to draw Orlando City at home. But under Neville, they managed to lose 1-3 to an Orlando that had just four shots on goal.
Fast, cheap, good
The Red Bulls are not like Toronto, Chicago, or Miami. While those teams went out and bought high-priced, experienced players, New Jersey have the youngest squad in MLS. In that way they have more in common with NYCFC, which have the second-youngest squad in the league.
The Red Bulls also have one of the lowest payrolls, which, according to the Athletic, is $11.16 million. That’s actually not so far from NYCFC’s, in spite of the graphic above. As we explained in the post “2023 NYCFC player salaries revealed: 7 takeaways,” New York City’s total payroll is actually around $12.5 million once you deduct the salaries paid to five players currently loaned out to other clubs. Other organizations also might have loaned-out players on their payrolls, so it’s impossible to say where exactly where NYCFC stands on the MLS list, but it’s fair to say that the club is likely in the lower one-third.
But the Red Bulls recruited much more aggressively in the offseason, reportedly paying a club-record $5.3 million fee for striker Dante Vanzeir. True, the Belgian’s greatest accomplishment this season has been to unite all MLS fans in solidarity with the Red Bulls supporters who walked out at the start of a match in April to protest a racist statement Vanzeir made in the previous match. But prior to this poor season, Vanzeir scored 68 goals in the Belgian first division, and was called up to the Belgian national team for 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches in 2021. He’s impressive on paper.
Struber was likely let go as much for how he mishandled Vanzeir’s racist comment on the field, choosing to let the striker play the rest of the game – which the Red Bulls went on to draw with a 90 + 17′ goal – and how he came across as impatient rather than contrite in the press conferences after.
Comparison of Goal-Scorers
But let’s return our focus to the numbers. Vanzeir is a Designated Player who will make $1,459,767 this season. Compare him to NYCFC’s Segal, the club’s stand-in striker. Segal was claimed off waivers, never scored a professional goal before joining New York City, and will make $67,360. Vanzeir has made just three starts this year, and scored two goals in 419 minutes played. Segal has made four starts, and scored two goals in 361 minutes played.
One is a high-paid product who is failing to produce, the other a bargain who is finding a way to score against the odds.
There’s the old saying, “Fast, cheap, good: Now pick two.” The idea is that if you want it fast and good, it won’t come cheap. If you want it cheap and good, it won’t happen fast.
Toronto, Chicago, and Mimi picked fast and good, but only got fast: They’re paying a premium for poor teams. New Jersey picked cheap and fast, and hoped that signing Vanzeir would be enough to give their young, inexpensive team a boost. That hasn’t worked out as planned.
For better or worse, NYCFC opted for cheap and good at the start of this season, which is why this has been a slow and uneven year. Yes, the lack of results is frustrating. But if you look at the table above, you have to have some admiration for Cushing, who found a way to get two goals out of Segal, equalling Vanzeir’s production in fewer minutes and for 95% less money.
Yes, that table is only looking at goal-scorers, but there’s a lot to glean from that cross-section of players, performances, and dollar amounts.
Make no mistake, Lee, Sims, and the rest of the C-Suite at City Football Group are perfectly aware of the resources they handed Cushing, and they’re grading on a curve. That’s why his job is safe. It will be interesting to see if NYCFC switch up the formulation in this transfer window and sign some top-dollar talent, choosing good and fast — and leaving aside cheap for another time.
Toronto, Chicago, Miami, and New Jersey also knew what they provided to their coaches, and measured the results accordingly. That’s why Bradley, Hendrickson, Neville, and Struber were saddled with the sins of their clubs, and sent out into the wild.