Alex Callens celebrates NYCFC’s second win in four days. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Alex Callens was named one of three finalists for MLS defender of the year on Thursday. This story originally was posted on Sept. 17, 2022

By Michael Lewis Editor

If looks could kill, Nick Cushing might have been in trouble.

Earlier this week, the New York City FC interim head coach asked star defender Alex Callens and asked him if he might want to play only one of two international matches for Peru during the upcoming international break.

“I asked him at the start of this week if he wanted to play one and rest one,” Cushing said. “He didn’t even answer. He looked me straight in the eye and I took the answer straight from him. I actually think I offended him.”

That’s because the 30-year-old center back is a gamer.

On Saturday afternoon, Callens finished up a virtuoso performance on both ends of the Yankee Stadium pitch, scoring the first goal in the opening minute of a 2-0 win over the archrival Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby and denying Luquinhas with a goal line clearance later in the first half.

That was the second consecutive match Callens, a defender, has scored for City, having tallied the go-ahead goal in the 2-0 triumph over Atlas FC in the Campeones Cup at the stadium on Wednesday.

Now, Cushing is not a naive person. He knew what Callens has brought to the team since he joined New York City FC in 2917.

“We fully support him playing for the national team because that guy has over the last year really, really solidified himself as a really important player for his national team and for us,” he said. You see how important he. He’ll do the right things. He is an incredible professional. He actually is a really good example to all of the younger players out there.

“That the way that you apply yourself, you do the right things, not only can you have performances, but you can come back after injuries. You roll two 90 minutes in four days. He is a great example.”

Callens was named player of the match. He was happy about that, but it was about the team, not him on Saturday, which tells you much about the man.

“It’s not necessarily something I care about because this is a team effort,” he said. “What was seen was a team that was united, a team that worked really hard. It looked as if we were playing a final today. These three points are going to help us a lot, and to gain confidence for what is coming. I think this may be the first time that we’ve won against the Red Bulls twice in one year. The truth is that right now we’re in a good moment. We have a break, which is important for us because we just finished playing matches every three days.”

While many of his NYCFC teammates will catch their breath after playing seven matches in 21 days, Callens will fly to across the country to meet Mexico at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Sept. 24 and then take on El Salvador at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. three days later.

Cushing understood what he has in Callens, a pro’s pro.

“I don’t think you come across these guys very often,” he said. “I work in the men’s and the women’s game and there’s a handful of real special players. I worked in Manchester City and the women had Carli Lloyd. She was an incredible player.”

The NYCFC boss said he has had maybe three or four players of that caliber that it “inspires me. brings a level to the team that is the next level. I couldn’t say enough about him.”

How important is Callens to the Cityzens’ success? It was the games in which he was sidelined with injuries that team suffered defensively. Cushing said City’s defensive problems started with Callens was sidelined with an injury, starting with a 3-2 loss at the Columbus Crew on Aug. 6.

“We’ve had a run of disappointing games,” he said. “We actually weren’t in a losing moment until he went on he went off at 2-2 in Columbus.”

That was in the 72nd minute. Three minutes later, the Crew scored the game-winning goal. It was the second game of City’s 1-7-2 swoon. When Callens returned, the defense improved.

“He is an incredible guy first and foremost,” he added. “He is a guy that does and has done everything to get the performances that he gets, and in my opinion his level is is the best central defender in the hunt.”

On both sides of the ball. Always a solid defender on the backline, Callens took center stage last year when he converted the game-winning penalty kick in the shootout that boosted NYCFC to its first MLS Cup title.

This season, the 6-1, 181-lb. Callens has rolled on. He has scored four goals in 25 MLS matches, five across all competitions. That other tally was a fourth-minute goal that sparked City on Wednesday night.

“I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but we found a system where he actually can be a striker, a midfield player and a defender all in 90 minutes,” Cushing said. “So, he’s given the team a lot in the moment.”

A man for all positions?

Let the rest of the league be forewarned.