Talles Magno (43) celebrates with teammates after converting a penalty kick against CF Montreal (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

It is easy to find fault with anything these days, even with the best of teams.

And these comments can be magnified on social media.

Today, I am not going to criticize New York City FC. I am going to praise the defending MLS Cup champions, who recovered from an abysmal 10-match summer run in which the team seemed ready to drop out of the postseason picture to a win away from returning to the final.

Give interim head Nick Cushing, who inherited a difficult task after MLS Cup winning coach Ronny Deila jumped ship in midseason to take on the reins of Standard Liege in Belgium, a lot of credit. Cushing’s challenge was made even tougher when 2021 Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos left the team to play for Girona in Spain a little later.

The team endured a major tailspin during the summer, winning but once in 10 matches (1-7-2) until the team snapped that skid with a 2-0 victory over the Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby on Sept. 17.

Including that result, since then the Cityzens have been on a roll, winning five consecutive MLS matches while outscoring the opposition, 12-3. Two of those wins came in the MLS Cup Playoffs, a 3-0 home win over Inter Miami CF and a 3-1 road triumph past CF Montreal.

Adding a 2-0 victory over Atlas in the Leagues Cup final, NYCFC hasn’t lost or tied in six matches.

Translated: City has found itself and gotten hot at the right time.

City might not necessarily boast a superstar – Castellanos – but it does have standouts and very good players at just about each position and even in reserve, which is needed for playoff success.

And give sporting director David Lee a lot of credit as well. He has put together a team with quality players and replacements as just about every position. If one player goes down with an injury, another, perhaps not with the exact same abilities, but certainly with something they can bring to the table, comes on.

That is not easy to do in the MLS complicated world of budgets, rules and regulations.

Without Castellanos, NYCFC is doing its offensive damage by committee, whether it is Gabriel Pereira, Santiago Rodriguez, Talles Magno, Heber or Maxi Moralez.

Moralez, 35, certainly not the player he was when he joined the team in 2017, might have lost a step here or there but his skills are still top notch, and his soccer IQ might have grown. He knows when to launch a long pass to a teammate, which he did in the 3-1 triumph at CF Montreal on Sunday. He also knows how to play the short game so well to set up an NYCFC player with an irresistible pass. And of course, he still can put the ball into the back of the net, which he did in the sixth minute on Sunday, starting City to its win.

On the other side of the ball, the defense has been solid.

The center back combination of Alex Callens, who is enjoying a career year on both sides of the ball and an MLS defender of the year finalist, and Maxime Chanot, have formed a consistent combination in the middle. They have played together for six seasons, a long time for two center backs to partner for any team in the world.

NYCFC’s depth was demonstrated when Tayvon Gray went down with an injury. Anton Tinnerholm, one of the best right backs in league before missing a good portion of this season with an Achilles tendon injury he suffered late in the 2021 campaign, has replaced the Homegrown defender. Given his experience and leadership abilities, Tinnerholm probably is an upgrade. That’s how deep NYCFC is.

Sean Johnson has reminded U.S. men’s national coach Gregg Berhalter again and again that he should be one of the three goalkeepers to be named to the team for the World Cup in Qatar.

The squad also has shown how quickly it can change formations in a game and return to the original set up without missing too much of a beat. Last week the team went from a three-back system to four in the back before returning to three again, due to injury and what the game demanded.

All things considered, NYCFC did that pretty seamlessly.

A lot of that has to come down to interim head coach Nick Cushing, who not only has fielded the best Starting XI and has brought on the right players at the right time during this surge. The players have absorbed game plans and executed them quite well.

On top of everything, NYCFC must have set some sort of international record for the most home venues in a season. The Cityzens have played at Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, Red Bull Arena, Rentschler Field, Belson Stadium and Banc of California Stadium across all competitions.

Certainly not a mean feat when the players’ feet compete on various pitch conditions that are supposed to be their home-field advantage. Despite that, NYCFC registered a 10-3-4 home mark.

As for Sunday’s Eastern Conference final on Sunday, the Philadelphia Union will be a difficult adversary to crack, especially at Subaru Park in Chester, Pa., where it is unbeaten in 18 matches (13-0-5), including the playoffs.

The Union also will be at much better strength compared to last year, when it lost 11 players, including several key performers, to COVID-19 right before last year’s conference final vs. City.

Plus, Philly boasts two of the best defenders in the league in Jakob Glesnes, who was voted the MLS defender of the year, and Kai Wagner, and Jamaican Andre Blake, a Jamaican international who is perennially the best keeper in the league. He should be playing in Europe but that is an issue to tackle for another time.

Philadelphia conceded a league-low 26 goals in 34 matches. The closest team to that total? FC Dallas with 37. NYCFC allowed 41 goals.

The Union won both regular season encounters, 2-0 and 2-1, which has to bolster the team’s confidence, although knowing head coach Jim Curtin, he will say those results will mean nothing on Sunday.

True.

It will be how the teams perform at Subaru.

As for Cushing’s future, if City runs the table and wins the whole thing again, whether the venue is Los Angeles or Austin, he should get serious consideration as permanent head coach. I realize he is not a name coach, but Cushing will have proven his worth, leading NYCFC through some treacherous waters after losing the head coach and leading goal-scorer.

That’s the mark of a good coach.

We don’t know the inner machinations of the City Football Group and who they want in charge of the team, so that remains to be seen.

Cushing and company will need to take care of a few things first, including what could be an epic battle between the defending league champions and a serious contender with eyes on their throne in 2022.