By Michael Lewis
There is no one recipe for a team to win back-to-back championship in any league in any sport.
You have to be good. You have to be lucky, and you have to have a decent defense.
New York City FC has been good, sometimes very good, but has not always been lucky and it certainly has shown recently how shaky its defense, team and especially backline, can be.
It has been an uphill battle for the reigning MLS Cup champions, who have gone against the grain since losing their head coach and leading goal-scorer.
Ronny Deila, he of push-up fame after City captured their first MLS title in Portland last year, decided to be closer to home and his Norwegian family and took Standard Liege’s offer to coach a Belgian Pro League side.
Taty Castellanos, he of MLS Golden Boot fame, is playing for Girona in La Liga on loan from Manchester City, NYCFC’s parent team.
That’s two devastating losses right there.
Despite that, the Cityzens have managed to stay above the playoff line in the MLS Eastern Conference with a 12-6-6 record and 42 points, good for third place. They trail the first-place Philadelphia Union (13-3-9, 48) by six points, and Montreal CF (13-8-4, 43) and have a game in hand on both foes.
That’s the good news, more or less.
The bad news is that NYCFC hasn’t played anywhere near the potential of an MLS champion recently.
The team is still scrambling to find the right No. 9 or even false 9 to replace Castellanos – not in an easy proposition for any team to find a quality striker.
The squad also has suffered from defensive deficiencies and breakdowns, particularly in its last two matches in which it allowed three goals in 3-2 losses at the Columbus Crew and Inter Miami CF.
NYCFC will try to avoid making it a trifecta with another game away from Yankee Stadium when it hosts Charlotte FC at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday.
Yes, the league counts that as a home game – because the slumping Yankees are hosting the Tampa Bay Rays at the stadium. But just ask City supporters if they count that as a home encounter by the number of fannies they will put in the seats at RBA.
To recapture its success of 2021, City must find someone upfront who can score consistently up front – easier said than done. Heber, who tallied 15 goals in 22 contests before he went down with a knee injury during the 2019 season, is one candidate, although he hasn’t been lighting up the scoring charts in recent games. Talles Magno has been mentioned as another, as a false No. 9.
Perhaps someone else will emerge.
Then there’s the other side of the ball.
As interim head coach Nick Cushing has stated, the team needs to top making individual mistakes, especially in the defensive third. Case in point: the game-winning goal in the 84th minute in Miami.
Don’t know what Alfredo Morales was thinking giving the ball away as Miami’s Alejandro Pozuelo turned that blunder into a rather easy goal, but shouldn’t he have gotten an assist as well?
Seriously, this could become a serious problem if it is duplicated down the stretch.
Soccer is a game in which you could play stupendously for 89 minutes and 55 seconds, have a five-second lapse or mental fart, and the game goes out the window. You have to be fit in body and in mind.
Barring a complete and utter collapse, City should make the playoffs.
With the mercurial Yankees heading for October, though they are in throes of a deep slump, another big question for NYCFC is whether the team will be able to play at the stadium or call Red Bull Arena home for the postseason.
If NYCFC manages to reach MLS Cup again, we have to call the season a success, given the obstacles it has faced.
Especially with the fact the team has called six, that’s right – count ’em, six – venues home this year.
The list includes Banc of California Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Rentschler Field, Red Bull Arena, Citi Field and Belson Stadium (hope I haven’t forgotten one, there are so many).
That’s asking a lot from the players, who certainly deserve better and familiar playing conditions.
With 12 precious games remaining in City’s regular season, the team has plenty of time to accrue points and regain its mojo.
If not, it will join an endless list of teams that could not repeat as champions.
Certainly not the end of the world, but for City Football Group, its parent organization, which demands excellence of every team within its sphere, it will be considered a failure.