Sean Johnson’s defense has been like a sieve in front of him. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
At the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China, the local media used the phrase Triple-Edged Sword to describe the U.S. women’s national team triumvirate and its lethal goal-scoring trio of Michelle Akers, Carin Gabarra and April Heinrichs.
Well, another soccer team is facing a multi-edged sword. Let’s call it the Quintuple-Edged Sword and is the blade is cutting into New York City FC.
The defending MLS Cup champions are in the midst of a nightmare stretch run in which it has dropped three consecutive games and has won only once in its last eight matches (1-6-1). Out of a possible 24 points, that’s a paltry four points.
Not the way any team would want to defend its title.
City has struggled due to five major problems that make up that five-edged sword – no offense, untimely defensive errors, midseason coaching change that surprised the club’s powers that be, injuries and jumping from “home” venue to home venue.
Let’s take it from the top.
The coaching change
Coaching changes in midseason usually happen when a team is losing.
Not this time.
After directing City to the 2021 MLS crown, there was no reason for the team to get rid of Ronny Deila, but he had other thoughts. He wound up jumping the NYCFC ship when the team was in the Eastern Conference lead with a damn good 8-3-2 record and 26 points. Since then, the Cityzens have been a rather mediocre 5-7-4 with 19 points. It’s a minor miracle they still are in fourth place, although the likes of Orlando City SC (42) and Columbus Crew (40) are ready to jump ahead of NYCFC.
Assistant coach Nick Cushing was named interim head coach and the team has fallen off since.
Let’s face it. Deila was a difficult act to follow. While Cushing has essentially kept the same system, no two coaches are exactly alike. They might think the same way but do things in a slightly different way. Case in point: Chris Armas replaced Jesse Marsch as Red Bulls head coach midway through 2018 MLS season. The team won the Supporters Shield lost something after Marsch left and Armas was fired in 2020.
Is it Cushing’s fault? Well, coaches get the blame when a team goes south. Of course, it didn’t help that management has not found anyone or a committee to replace the great Taty Castellanos at striker and the team has suffered greatly.
And the defense exactly hasn’t been running on full cylinders of late, giving up goals at the seemingly worst possible times. And there has been a spate of injuries as well.
According to Trey Fillmore and his Blue Balls Podcast (@BlueBallsPod on Twitter), Cushing’s players still support him, but if the losing continues you have to wonder when that gets a bit thin, and the coach loses the locker room. Cushing comes off a knowledgeable and nice guy, but can he find a way to get the team out of its funk?
If not, he probably won’t be offered the head coaching position in 2023.
Actually, and this might sound harsh. Cushing might have lost the job already. NYCFC likes to bring in bigger name coaches.
The hardest act to follow
We all knew last winter that Taty wasn’t long for this club, given his scoring accomplishments and winning the Golden Boot last season. He didn’t stop in 2022.
The Argentine scoring machine boasted a league-best 13 goals when he said goodbye to his teammates on July 25. Since then, City has scurried to score eight goals in eight games en route to an abysmal 1-6-1 mark.
The problem was that no one has stepped up after he left, individually or as a committee to the lack of goal-scoring. Heber, who had 15 goals in 22 appearances in 2019. hasn’t come close to his former production. He has seven goals in nine starts and 25 matches.
Talles Magno, Santiago Rodriguez have been productive throughout the season, but they have not been the answer, at least not until now.
Again, blame has to go to the players trying to replace Taty and NYCFC management. It wasn’t like Taty’s departure was a big surprise to the front office and City Football Group.
Defense? What defense?
Botched assignments, poor passes out of the back, bad positioning. The list goes on and on.
Even veteran players such as Maxime Chanot have made grave mistakes at the wrong time.
You give up goals, you lose games.
Defensively, the team has been a train wreck, allowing the Columbus Crew, Inter Miami CF and New England Revolution (all three on the road) and Charlotte FC (at home) to tally three goals in each game, which not surprisingly, resulted in losses.
NYCFC might want to try to try to be less attack-minded in its next match.
Then again, when is there a timely injury?
Every team suffers injuries.
It depends on who gets hurt, when they are ailing and how long they are going to be sidelined.
It has seemed that City has been beset by injuries this summer, particularly recently. It has exposed the lack of depth, especially in the backline, and the team has paid for it, especially on the road.
Like the team’s inability to bring in a striker, that blame lies with the management.
For Wednesday night’s home game against FC Cincinnati, Alfredo Morales, Anton Tinnerholm and Justin Haak are sidelined with lower body injuries.
On a more positive not, three players who had been sidelined are available for selection – Alex Callens, Thiago Martins and Keaton Parks; the latter was sidelined since June.
On the road when at home
Six home venues in one season is way too much for any team, especially reigning champions.
Let us count the places NYC has called “home” in 2022 – Yankee Stadium, Banc of California Stadium, Rentschler Field, Red Bull Arena, Citi Field and Belson Stadium.
Hope I didn’t miss any.
Playing at so many different venues can take its toll on players and even their supporters.
I don’t care what players say about playing at home game at multiple venues, as long as it is in the metropolitan area.
There is something called home field advantage where players know the intricacies of their home pitch. They get to know it much better than the opposition.
Besides, NYCFC fans don’t like traveling across the George Washington Bridge to RBA. Translated: home field advantage goes out the window. What? 8,000 and changed what the disaster of a loss in Harrison, N.J. last week.
If the Yankees recover their mojo and do some damage in the playoffs, and the Mets win in the postseason, City could be calling Red Bull Arena home if it is fortunate to host any games.
And one last thing. NYCFC Fan Services sent out a Tweet earlier Tuesday saying that there will be no parking available for Wednesday’s match against FC Cincinnati at Citii Field due to the U.S. Open. The club encouraged fans to use public transportation.
What happens next?
Can NYCFC turn things around in its final five matches?
Of course it can.
The big question is whether City can turn it around. It needs a win and three points to make its supporters happy, however temporary it might be.
Cincy sits in eighth place in the conference with 38 points, an improved side that is hungry to put its first three abysmal seasons behind it.
NYCFC is a better team than this. At least the Cityzens should be.
The final five matches will be a test of character for NYCFC to fight off its malaise and stabilize itself.
If the squad keeps on losing and falls out of the top four – and heaven forbid, find a way to finish out of the playoffs (that would be below seventh place), heads will roll in the offseason, coaches and players.
The City Football Group doesn’t like losing or losers.