So, the time has finally come. The roller coaster 2020 MLS regular season is over. And now, the MLS Cup Playoffs begin. New York City FC have secured a berth in the tournament for the fifth straight season. But it hasn’t been as smooth as we’re accustomed to it being.
This year, NYCFC entered as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Since 2016, the Boys in Blue have never entered the playoffs at lower than the third seed in the east. Of course, this year has been anything but normal. The coronavirus pandemic has swept through the world and caused MLS play to put on hold for three months back in March and was shortened to 23 games as opposed to the typical 34.
NYCFC also had to deal with a changing of the guard before the season with Domé Torrent stepping down from the manager’s chair. In his place came Ronny Deila. And since his arrival, NYCFC have been a mixed bag when it comes to results.
Nonetheless, NYCFC have made it here. But what are their chances this year? We sat down with a few from our team here at Hudson River Blue to give you our collective thoughts on how the Bronx Blues could fare in the playoffs in pursuit of their first-ever MLS Cup.
1.) NYCFC had a rough start to their season, but were able to salvage their season after the restart. What is your overall feeling about how New York City performed over the course of the season?
Anderson Calderon: NYCFC’s improvement since the start of the season has been unprecedented in my opinion. From having no identity and struggling to score goals to outscoring opponents with their hyper-offense approach, I’ve been really impressed with some of their games in the latter stages of the season. There’s still a lot of work to be done but Deila has done a good job with limited resources.
Connor Donohue: Good, but not great. I’m still not sold on Ronny Delia as a manager but the results don’t lie. There was a point during the MLS is Back Tournament when I said to myself, “if MLS restarts, this team is missing the playoffs.” Here we are in November and now the team has finished 5th in the conference and almost clinched a home game for the playoffs. Looking at the season in perspective with the teams’ injuries, a new coach, and a global pandemic, I’ll take it. Next season, whenever and however that may occur, will be the true indication as to how Delia is as a manager in this league.
Nicholas Robbins: I feel that post-restart, this team was a great team. They really came together following the deep-ish run in the MLS is Back tournament. I have been impressed with the attack as of late, but the defense leaves a bit to be desired. Overall, I am a bit disappointed — this season seemed like a season where we could contend for the Supporters Shield but because of the slow start, that never really panned out.
Stephen Attaway: It certainly hasn’t been the best season. For a large part of the season, the team seemed disjointed and out of place with each other. While results have been somewhat steady, the more important part for me is that the team is playing well. With large improvements in team cohesion, we could see the team looking good going into the postseason.
Raf Noboa y Rivera: This season is unprecedented. I think we have to take it for what it is, and I hesitate to make any sweeping pronouncements. With that in mind: I think New York City haven’t played up to the level of their talent. While the Pigeons have played well lately, it’s hard to dismiss how stuttering the team’s performance has been all season; just when things seem to get going, NYCFC stumbles and falls.
That said: it does feel like the Pigeons have found their feet lately. They’ve only lost three times in their last 17 matches, and go into the playoffs on a four-match winning streak. They’ve done that despite losing Heber and James Sands to season-ending injuries and missing Maxi Moralez for long stretches due to injury.
I don’t know whether that means Deila should keep his job. There’s legitimate reasons to keep him, and reasons to let him go. I think given the extraordinary circumstances of this season, you take the offseason to really assess where the team can improve and whether Deila is the man to lead them next season. He didn’t have a proper offseason to get his team set up, the quarantine played havoc with the season, and injuries picked up where the pandemic left off. I do think NYCFC are better than fifth place in the East, and a 12-8-3 record, and their play at the end of the season better reflects that than at the beginning; I’m just not confident that Deila can do that consistently, given he hasn’t done it elsewhere.
2.) Given their performances as of late, do you keep the front three of Taty Castellanos, Jesus Medina, and Gary Mackay-Steven intact? Or do you try to somehow re-insert Ismael Tajouri-Shradi into the lineup?
Anderson: Taty, Medina and GMS have to start in the playoffs. It’s all finally clicked in the past couple of games and you would have to be a mad man to change the formula during such a delicate part of the season. Tajouri-Shradi is a great player but he lost a lot of momentum with his unfortunate COVID diagnosis. He can, however, make a huge impact off the bench during the playoffs.
Connor: Stick with the hot hand. Taty just won MLS player of the month, Medina has played one of, if not his best season in an NYCFC shirt, and Mackay-Steven’s hard work is starting to pay off in goals. Don’t overthink this. We’ve seen it in the past where this team overthinks come crunch time and misses the mark. If the Orlando game or possibly any game after that is going poorly, then you have a weapon like Tajouri-Shradi who can come on and change the dynamic of the game. Ronny’s gotta K-I-S-S: keep it simple, stupid.
Nicholas: I think you have to keep the front three as it is. Castellanos has been on incredible form as of late, being included in the MLS team of the week in back to back weeks. Mackay-Steven’s has seemed to finally find his feet in a blue shirt and Medina is showing that same form he showed at the start of his time at NYCFC.
Stephen: Tajouri-Shradi is a must for me. What he provides in the final third is invaluable, especially in a knockout game. Despite recent good performances, Gary Mackay-Steven would be my choice to warm the bench. What GMS provides in 1v1 situations he lacks in crossing ability and his shooting often leaves much to be desired.
Raf: I would keep the front three as they are; Tajouri-Shradi should continue coming off the bench. I give Deila credit for resuscitating Medina’s career at NYCFC; he’s turned him into a key contributor, and that was not at all what anyone would’ve expected at the beginning of 2020. Most of us thought Medina was a bust. Not anymore. Whether he’s worth a DP slot is still an open question, but he’s definitely become a contributor.
3.) NYCFC have Orlando City on the road in the first round of the playoffs. Given the Lions’ performance this year at home, do you think this is a bad matchup for the club? Or do you think they can pull it out?
Anderson: I hate to say it but I don’t think NYCFC have shown the kind of mental fortitude and solidity at the back to go into Orlando territory and give a convincing performance. To my point, I don’t think City have won a game this season where they conceded first. Whatever happens on November 21st will reflect a lot on Deila’s management. Surely, he’s aware that Orlando are favorites and an all-attacking, no-defending approach could result in an embarrassing scoreline.
Connor: I don’t like this matchup at all. Orlando is a team that has had City’s number in recent matchups. Any Oscar Pareja coached team will be an issue. Nani is still Nani and Chris Muller likes to have fun harassing City’s center backs when they matchup. Another ripple is Daryel Dike. Dike is a rookie who struggled to get his feet under him early in the season, but now, he is the front runner for rookie of the year and is being touted for a call up to the USMNT. He has 8 goals and four assists on the season. Match that with his holdup ability, that will be an issue for the City backline.
City are hot though, and that’s what gives me some hope. During the smackdown City gave the Red Bulls a couple of weeks back, the broadcast said a healthy City midfield can compete with anyone in the league. Alex Ring, Keaton Parks, and Maxi Moralez need to do their thing in order for City to advance. If City can overwhelm Orlando in the midfield, then Orlando will be in trouble.
Nicholas: Orlando away is always going to be a tough game. It seems as if we have played Orlando a thousand times since we both joined the league together in 2015. They will be up for this game as it is their first-ever playoff game. It is a fair even match up and at the end of the day I think our squad’s overall playoff experience will win out.
Stephen: This will not be an easy game. Despite their history, Orlando has become a force to be reckoned with. We have seen in the past how Chris Mueller is able to exploit the defensive weakness of NYC’s left flank and I could see a very similar result coming. It is by no means impossible for City to come away with the win, but it won’t be easy.
Raf: I do. Oscar Pareja did what no one was able to do at Orlando before he arrived - turn the Lions into a legitimate playoff contender. Pareja is one of the best coaches in the league. He’s done it at Colorado, at Dallas, and now here. He’s a better manager than Deila, and extremely good at making his teams better than the sum of their parts. How good? He had Orlando in Supporters’ Shield contention until they lost to Inter Miami late in the season.
Orlando is a less talented team than New York City; I don’t think that will matter. Orlando will be playing at home, in front of a limited-capacity crowd. This season, the Lions have only lost one game out of the 10 they’ve played at home. New York City’s away record is middling at best. If this were a two-legged playoff, I’d feel differently, but Orlando historically has the edge at home against NYCFC (3-2-3). I think this one is a thriller, and it’s yet another playoff defeat for the Pigeons.
4.) Should they be able to get past Orlando, what do you think of NYCFC’s chances are of finally shaking their playoff curse and making a deep run towards an MLS Cup? Do you think a four-game win streak to finish the season will have any effect in giving them momentum?
Anderson: If City get past Orlando, then they will probably have to face Philly — yikes! I don’t think this is the kind of season where we should have high expectations. Our chances of a full MLS Cup run are pretty slim. A four-game win streak will definitely help the team going into Orlando and who knows, maybe an upset in Florida will give this group of players a tremendous boost in confidence (especially at the back).
Connor: If City beat Orlando, the rest of the league should be scared. NYC hit a mental block come playoff time every single year, but overcoming that mental block can mean big things for the club’s chance at MLS Cup. I think Toronto is the most dangerous team in the East this year, but City is not far behind entering the playoffs. The team is coming in hot at the right time and that has been a proven catalyst for teams to make a run at MLS Cup in the past. It’s 2020, let’s get weird.
Nicholas: I’ll be honest, I don’t see a deep playoff run in this team. The East this year is loaded with talent at the top from Philly, Toronto and Columbus. A win against Orlando would likely put us in a match up with Philadelphia. I don’t see us beating the Shield winners. Sadly, another early playoff exit ahead of us.
Stephen: Winning one could very well open the floodgates for a productive postseason and if the game against Orlando goes the way of City, a deep run could be in order. The team is on a roll currently and this confidence should serve them well in a playoff run.
Raf: Not good. Should they get past Orlando, they’ll face a rampant Philadelphia Union, who look primed to add more silverware to their once-barren trophy cabinet. I don’t think they get past the Union; New York City’s defensive frailties are too apparent for Philadelphia not to exploit them. Having a four-game winning streak helps, but the playoffs are a different season, and it’s one where they’ve yet to shake off the mental demons that have plagued them there. I don’t think this is the season where that happens, considering they’d have to play on the road throughout.